If you didn’t document it, then it didn’t happen.

This phrase speaks to the importance maintaining accurate academic advising notes. Documenting student-advisor interactions promotes continuity of service from one advisor to the next. The advising notes must tell a story that clearly outlines a student’s progress toward achieving academic and career goals and the services that have been provided to that student. Some advisors write a novel to document conversations whereas other advisors write so many abbreviations that reading their notes can be like deciphering a secret code.

Advising notes allow advisors to connect students’ past to their present; they build context. Given the significance of keeping accurate records, I am surprised that documentation standards seem to be uncommon to higher education (e.g. academic advising, career services, etc.). Medical and mental health professionals have documentation formats such as SOAP and DAP to promote consistency in their documentation. These professionals are trained to use bias free language, document facts rather than impressions, and comment on future needs. The notes constitute a formal record of service that is protected by a federal law called  the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

Similarly, student services professionals’ notes constitute a significant portion of students’ educational records, which are protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Advising notes are not informal, casual comments, but rather part of a legal record protected by federal law. Students have access to these notes at their request. How comfortable would you feel writing an advising note with a student over your shoulder or perhaps a lawyer? Are you taking care to write advising notes using bias free language, documenting facts rather than impressions, and including information about services provided and potential future needs? More importantly, do you, or have you ever, received training on this topic or have minimal standards you are required to meet?

Academic documentation is not just a legal record, it is also the key to creating an excellent student experience. For example, when advisors document detailed, concise notes, they won’t need to spend valuable time reconstructing a student’s story. They will be aware of a the student’s history, which will make it easier to build rapport and create productive advising sessions. Imagine a doctor who can never seem to remember what is going on with a patient he or she has seen several times already.  Good notes lead to continuity of service.

For these reasons, I believe advisors should adopt a documentation standard that encourages consistency – the Motive, Assessment, Progress and Plan (MAPP) format. Here is what each section includes:

M – What is the purpose of the interaction?

AWhat topics were covered in the advising session? What did the advising session address and what services were provided?

P – What kind of progress is the student making toward his or her goals? What are the challenges, opportunities, or barriers to progress?

P – Considering the progress of the student, what is going to happen next? What steps will the advisor or the student take after the appointment? Will follow-up occur?

The MAPP format is easy to remember and provides a guideline – a map (pun intended) – for documenting student-staff interactions. Adhering to some sort of structure for note-taking ensures consistency.