Shared Advising Notes

Background

In 2016, UC Berkeley moved to an integrated student information system. The new system allowed us to share advising notes across campus departments for the first time. Shared notes are an enhancement to our ability to support students, and allow us to deliver more coordinated, consistent, and integrated advising. At Berkeley, there are multiple shared notes systems (Berkeley Online Advising, Financial Aid, Counseling & Psychological Services, and more). The guidelines below can be applied to any shared notes system but in this document, we refer primarily to Berkeley Online Advising, or BOA. Regardless of the specific system, it is important that advisors and student services staff fully understand both the legal and ethical responsibilities attached to note-taking in a shared system, especially as it relates to the sharing of sensitive personal information.

Rationale

A shared notes system provides a place to record, share and integrate the advice that various advising and student services offices provide to students during their time at Berkeley, resulting in an enhanced student experience. Advising units that still use a separate notes system are strongly encouraged to transition to BOA as a means of supporting student success. 

Why Take Notes? 

  • Creates a record of students’ advising contacts and the advice and policy information provided.

  • Personalizes the advising experience. 

  • Records official decisions about a student’s education.

  • Increases advisor efficiency and effectiveness. Gives advisors context and history, allowing them to focus on key issues for students, rather than requiring the student to repeat information they shared in a past session.

  • Refreshes advisor memory prior to return visits and helps when planning next steps.

  • Communicates critical information to other University personnel. 

  • Allows for a continuity of information if a student’s advisor leaves the unit before the student graduates.

  • Shared notes can also be a tool for teaching and tracking the skills and competencies that we want students to develop while at UC Berkeley (e.g., leadership). 

Privacy of Student Records

UC Berkeley is committed to the privacy and confidentiality of student records. Because BOA provides access to student academic information, it is subject to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Users of BOA are encouraged to consider the sensitivity of information shared on this platform as it is part of the student’s permanent record and is therefore available to the student upon request. 

The record can also provide useful information to other school officials who have a legitimate educational interest in accessing such records. Although advisors are generally prohibited from disclosing student records without a student's written consent, the FERPA policy explains that certain personnel acting with a legitimate educational interest are permitted to access educational records ­even without a student's consent. Such a person must be a school official and have a legitimate educational need to access educational records. For additional information concerning the protections applied to student records, including when they may be used and disclosed without a student's written consent, please review the University FERPA policy.

Basic Guidelines

  1. Appropriate notes are primarily factual, action-oriented, concise, and progress-oriented. Ask yourself: Are your notes true? Necessary? Kind? Neutral? If you must be specific, report the words and behaviors that you observed. Do not interpret or add personal comments. For example:

Student says that he is feeling....

Student tore the form into four pieces and raised her voice....

Student stated that they are having difficulty with a course…

Student was silent and looked at the wall. The student’s hand was shaking. 

  1. Let the student know that you are going to be making notes after your meeting. If they have shared sensitive information that you think is important to include in your notes, ask for the student’s permission and include a note that you have received this permission. You may also want to ask the student to contribute to the production of the note.

  2. Record that you connected with the student and the method with which you met (phone, in-person, Zoom, email, etc).

  3. Include the reason for the appointment and a brief summary of topics covered and resources and URLs shared (include live link).

  4. Include the student’s goals and any challenges identified. Provide information that will aid you and your colleagues in helping the student on their degree/career path. 

  5. Document policies or procedures​ that were discussed or resolved.

  6. Document student and advisor action items, including any ​referrals made ​to campus departments, websites, or services. Clearly document expectations to help prevent potential misunderstandings. 

  7. TIP: You may want to copy and paste content of relevant email messages or attach a PDF of the message (to preserve formatting). 

Sensitive or Confidential Information 

During your interactions, students may disclose personal information of a sensitive or confidential nature. Remind the student that you will be taking notes and clarify what they are comfortable with you documenting in their file. Again, you may want to ask the student to contribute to the production of the note.

Remember also that notes are part of a student record and although this is extremely uncommon, may be subpoenaed. Assume that what you write may be viewed by students, their parents, their lawyers, or the general public. You may ultimately decide that no sensitive information needs to be added to your note. 

Following are examples of topics that a student might consider sensitive and that you may want to think carefully about before referencing in your notes: immigration or visa status; medical issues, including pregnancy, concussions; any history of incarceration; mental health issues or diagnoses; sexual assault or harassment. Note that if you are in a specialist role, this may dictate the amount of detail you enter about sensitive topics.

Use general or non­descript language and good judgment to describe such sensitive and confidential information. Ask yourself: what is sensitive and “need-to-know” vs. what is sensitive and not “need-to-know.”  In many instances, it may not be appropriate to record in detail disclosures by students of sensitive or confidential information.

Use general language​ if you can, instead of detailing specifics. For example:

  • Student reports family issues.

  • Student reports health issues.

  • Due to personal challenges, student was referred to _____ office.

  • Student is experiencing difficulty with....

  • Student came in to report a case of harassment.

Medical Documentation 

Federal and state laws protect the confidentiality of medical records, and as a result, medical documentation should not be included in shared electronic notes and thus, in the student's academic record. 

If the student has shared medical or mental health information with you, and you believe its relevance to their academic success makes it important to record, record only the minimum information needed to document the discussion and/or action plans. 

Tips from Campus Council David Robinson 7/10/20:

  • Delete any email from the student that contains detailed medical information you did not ask for. Do not upload it or preserve it. You can always ask the student to resend info as needed.

  • If you asked for the documentation, maintain the minimum information necessary. State in the notes that you reviewed the medical documentation and that it was adequate. Then delete the documents.

  • If the documentation is part of a particularly complex situation that is not going to be quickly resolved, you can contact the Office of Legal Affairs about how much information is appropriate to maintain in the file. In certain cases, the advisor could maintain the information until the decision is made. If relief is denied, you might want to keep the documentation in case there is an appeal. 

  • The UHS Verification of Illness form can be kept but best practice is still to delete it because it is not needed. You can make a note instead that you received and reviewed the form. 

Clarification from Campus Council, David Robinson:

If a student gives an academic advisor medical information in a non-medical treatment context, that is FERPA-protected data, but it is not subject to any medical privacy regulation. Conceptually, it is the same as my making a decision to share personal medical information with you. The medical privacy protection is lost when I, the patient, share it with you, a non-clinician, in a non-medical context. You don't have to treat it as protected information because you are not a regulated health care provider.

That said, actual medical records do not need to be and should not be kept in advising records, and it would be reasonable to adopt formal system guidance that says that. If advisors see or are given medical records, they should make a note that the records substantiate a medical issue relevant to academic advising, if that is the case, and then discard the actual medical record. We don't want medical records to be in the advising records because there is no business need for them to be there and there is the potential that a student’s privacy could be compromised by mishandling of the record.

This is a long way of saying that we should not keep medical records in an advising system, instead of making the system HIPAA-compliant and keeping medical records in the system.

Noting Sensitive Referrals in the File

Advisors are encouraged to use professional judgement in cases like this. It can be important to note in the file that a referral to Path to Care or Students of Concern (for example) has been made. Examples of how such referrals can be noted:

  • Per P2C, approved late drop of....

  • Made a referral to Students of Concern

  • When a student has been open about an assault, do not explain in detail but write something like: “Explained that I am a mandatory reporter, made a referral to P2C.”

When to Use Handwritten Personal Notes 

FERPA allows advisors to keep private handwritten paper notes as a memory aid for their own use while actively managing a sensitive or confidential situation, as long as no one else has access to them, including the advisor’s supervisor. Such handwritten notes should be extremely rare and should be kept in a secure location. They should be destroyed as soon as they are no longer needed by that advisor or upon the student's graduation, whichever is earlier. Note that all handwritten notes could be obtained and potentially made public in a lawsuit. If you are using Berkeley’s google docs for notes, then these notes are available to campus and are not private. Handwritten is preferred.

In general, handwritten notes containing sensitive or confidential personal information should not be transferred in the scenario where a student transfers between colleges. However, there may be some scenarios where this is justified­ and consulting with the Office of Legal Affairs is always appropriate. Always document your referral; this indicates you did something about the student's situation. 

Electronic notes are never as secure as paper notes, per Campus Council. However, consider the security of how your private paper notes are kept - no one else should have access to them and they should be destroyed as soon as the issue is resolved. 

Note on Responsible Employees and Mandated Reporters

Before an individual tells you about an incident of sexual violence or sexual harassment, you should inform the person that you are a Responsible Employee and that you are required to report incidents of sexual violence, sexual harassment or other conduct prohibited by university policy to the Title IX officer. You should tell the person that you cannot keep such reports confidential, but that the Title IX officer will consider requests for confidentiality. You should also inform the person telling you about sexual violence or sexual harassment that there are confidential resources available to them (see Path to Care and Counseling & Psychological Services), that serve survivors of sexual violence. Providing this information upfront allows the individual to decide whether to talk to you or go to a confidential resource.  

REFERENCES:

  • Elizabeth Wilcox’s Advancing Practice Module for New Advisors on Shared Notes

  • College of Engineering Student Services guidelines for shared notes

  • Guidance on the Content of Undergraduate Advising Notes at the University of Notre Dame 

  • Best Practices in Writing Advising Notes, by Maria DePalma of L&S Advising

  • UCB Campus Council David Robinson

Updated 8.11.20