“No One Ever Told Me”: How Advisors Can Maximize Service and Minimize Risk through Effective Documentation

This article is an excerpt from Sue Ohrablo's acclaimed book High-Impact Advising: A Guide for Academic Advisors, which you can find here.

Electronic documentation has become an integral part of an academic advisor's daily life. Student records and notes are often maintained electronically, and email has been established as a preferred method of communication among students, faculty, and staff. No longer are advisor records locked securely in a file cabinet within the department; our records and communications are more transparent and accessible to a broader audience than ever before -- as colleagues within the department rely on accurate, timely notes for consistency in service, and departments throughout the institution may access these records to develop an historical perspective on a student.

"No one ever told me": five words that are sure to make an academic advisor cringe, yet are uttered all too frequently in higher education. The implications behind those words may range from mild frustration on the part of the student to the basis for a lawsuit. It is crucial for academic advisors, as well as all university personnel, to maintain accurate, timely student records and documentation. By ensuring that your documentation is clear, concise, and accurate, you can maximize the delivery of service to students and minimize risk to the institution.

Maximizing Delivery of Service to Students

The scope and nature of our role in a student’s academic career can vary greatly. However, we are all responsible for providing service to students. That service may be in the form of instruction, advising, awarding of financial aid, collection of funds, registration, and more. The benefits of effective documentation include:

  1. Benefits to author: Effective notes allow the author to readily identify the nature of the last interaction with the student and summarize the issues pertaining to the last communication with the student. A simple statement such as, "How is your math class going? I remember that you were going to talk to the professor," will allow the student to feel remembered and cared for.
  2. Benefits to colleagues: Effective notes allow seamless delivery of service between advisors or other internal constituents. These notes help to reduce student "shopping" for an answer that best suits them, and reduces the need for students to repeat themselves to multiple staff members. A good note will allow an advisor to say, "I see that last week you spoke with advisor Smith about changing your major. Did you have a chance to contact career services yet?" It also prevents a student from claiming that he has not received an answer or information when the other advisor has documented to the contrary.
  3. Benefits to external constituents: Accurate, timely notes are essential in ensuring continuity of service between departments. With electronic documentation, notes should be made as soon as service has been delivered. Since staff members rely on cross-departmental communication, the notes should avoid jargon and acronyms that would not be understood by readers outside of the department. Effective notes can help ensure that we are all consistent in our messages to students and avoid the "My advisor told me…" scenario.

Appropriate Use and Types of Notations

As we proceed through our busy day, it is sometimes difficult to keep up with all of our appointments, calls, and emails, let alone take the time to document our interactions with students. If we do take the time to make a note, it is often a quick one. We are apt to use abbreviations and references that make sense to us, but may not serve a broader purpose. Unfortunately, such notes may result in confusion on the part of the author, colleagues, and external constituents. Using the appropriate type of note will help to maximize your effectiveness (Reamer, 2005*):

  1. Chronological note: A note which shows the date of the interaction or activity. Includes minimal information to communicate activity. Examples: "Returned student's call. Left voicemail message and sent follow up email," "Appointment scheduled for 2pm today. Student missed appointment."
  2. Summary note: a note which summarizes the salient points of the interaction or service. Provides more detail than a chronological note, and provides other readers more insight as to the nature of the service. In the example above, a summary note would read as follows: "Returned student's call. Left voicemail informing student that I would be sending an email answering her questions about financial aid. Sent email."
  3. Process note: a note which outlines the process involved in delivering service to the student. Using our previous example, the note would let the reader know what the issue is, and what the answers are: "Student called and left message asking about withdrawing from a course. Returned call and left detailed message on voicemail directing student to her email. Sent follow-up email to student addressing implications of withdrawal on financial aid and provided link to Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) guidelines, and suggested she contact financial aid before withdrawing. Asked student to confirm desire to withdraw and invited for advising appointment.” Process notes detail actions taken by both the student and university representative.

Using the example above, let’s now examine the student’s claim that "No one ever told me that I’d lose my financial aid if I withdrew from this course." The chronological note does not indicate that the student received appropriate advising, which leaves a gray area regarding her assertions. Conversely, the process note clearly indicates the nature of the student’s concern, and documents the information that the advisor provided the student. Further, if the student does follow the directive to contact financial aid, a detailed note from the financial aid counselor will further document delivery of service to the student.

SEE FURTHER EXAMPLES
See my blog post "Creating Effective Advising Notes" for specific ideas for improving chronological, summary, and process notes!

Minimizing Risk to the Institution

In addition to maximizing delivery of service to students and providing clear lines of communication across departments, effective documentation can help minimize risk to the institution. Students may claim that they did not receive service, or received inaccurate information, or experienced bias or harassment by a representative of the university. They may make a request to refund tuition, graduate without meeting degree requirements, or decide to file a lawsuit. Investigations into these claims can extend far beyond our notes in a student database.

In addition to notes in the student’s file, emails to and about the student, instant messages, and online course discussions are all subject to scrutiny. Each of these types of communication must be carefully crafted with the idea that it may be read by an unintended audience.

Checklist for Effective Notes

  • Is the type of note (chronological, summary, process) appropriate?
  • Is use of acronyms/jargon limited? Is the message understandable?
  • Is the note accurate and sufficient for an external reader?
  • Is the information directly related to delivery of service?
  • Is the message objective?
  • Would the message be appropriate for student, dean, president, or legal representative to read?

ARE YOU PROTECTING YOUR INSTITUTION'S REPUTATION IN THE EVENT OF A CYBER ATTACK?

For a much more thorough briefing, order Susan Ohrablo's online training "Minimize the Fallout from Cyber Attacks" today. Through case studies from real-life examples, Ohrablo will provide you with expert tips on how to effectively and appropriately document communications with students.

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* Reamer, F. G. (2005). Documentation in social work: Evolving ethical and risk-management standards. Social Work, 50(4), 325-334.