AAT banner

Voices of the Global Community


Amy L. Carmack, Bay Path University
Heather J. Carmack, James Madison University

Amu Carmack.jpgAmy: It began with an empty folder.  A senior was being transferred to my department and I was his newly assigned advisor.  As the student sat in my office, I asked him to tell me a little more about himself.  With a sigh, he asked, “Didn’t you get my folder?”  Looking at this young man—a student struggling to finish his degree and find his place in his new major—I couldn’t tell him that all I had was an empty folder.  All I had received from his previous department, a place where he had spent the past three years, was his name on a folder with nothing inside.  Instead, I said, “I’d like to hear about you from you.”

Heather Carmack.jpgHeather: It began with an empty folder.  I walked into the faculty mailbox room and found several empty advisee folders in my mailbox.  One of our faculty members had just transferred to an administrative position outside the department, and her advisees were being reassigned.  She thought she was being helpful by putting her student files in our mailboxes.  The problem was that her files were either empty or contained a half-completed General Education worksheet.  As I carried the empty files to my office, I realized I would have to start from scratch in determining the students’ progress toward degree completion.

Thus began the quest to bridge the way students and their information are handed off between departments and advisors.

The Importance of Transitions in Academic Advising

One of the reasons for dissatisfaction may be in the transition and hand-off process of students between faculty and departmental advisors.  Depending on the academic advising structure on a given campus, students may begin their collegiate experience in an academic advisement center and be paired with a faculty member in their declared department in their junior or senior years.  Some institutions position students within departments, with faculty advisors, at the start of their freshman year in an effort to foster collaboration with students, faculty, and departments.  Habley (2003, 2004) found that faculty can be responsible for 75% to 90% of academic advising for a student during their time in higher education, and “research has shown a clear relationship between student interaction with faculty advisors and retention” (King & Kerr, 2005, p. 320).

However, as students change majors multiple times during their academic tenure and change advisors or have multiple advisors within an institution, the shuffle of students and their files may cause havoc on their academic progress, their connection to the institution, and overall satisfaction.  While we know there is no advising model that works for all students and institutions, there are some communication strategies advisors can employ to ensure a shared mental model about students, student issues, and good advising processes.  One proven method is hand-off communication.

Crew Resource Management and Hand-off Communication

Crew resource management (CRM) was created by the Department of the Navy and was co-opted by both the airline industry and healthcare.  CRM focuses on communication, collaborative decision-making, teamwork, leadership, and interpersonal relationships (Hohenhaus, Powell, & Hohenhaus, 2006).  One of the strategies employed in CRM is SBAR hand-off (Situation-Background-Assessment-Recommendation), which creates a shared mental model for communication interactions (Haig, Sutton, & Whittington, 2006).  A proven communication strategy, SBAR provides a framework for clear and concise communication while using a consistent format between team members (Carmack, 2006; Carroll, 2006; Dunn et al., 2007; Falzetta, Carmack, Robinson, Murphy, & Dunn 2007).  Amato et al. (2008) found that SBAR communication is good in situations that see rapid turnover, increased volume, an increased need for efficiency, a focus on satisfaction, and accelerated throughput—all of which exist in academic advising and higher education.  More important, SBAR communication can foster collaboration and teamwork (Beckett & Kipnis, 2009), which is necessary for the future of academic advising between faculty and advisors.

S-PASS: The Advising Hand-off Tool

Inspired by SBAR, S-PASS addresses a need to improve the transfer of students and their information between advisors, departments, and majors.  S-PASS utilizes a student-centered communication approach and while the tool is standardized, the information about students is not.  The tool can be modified to fit any advisor’s needs, work for both electronic and hard copy record systems, and facilitates the accurate and complete transfer of student information.  It allows advisors to work together to provide a strong service to students and can ensure that pertinent information does not fall through the cracks as the student joins and acclimates to a new major and department.

S-PASS is comprised of five communicative elements: Student identification, Purpose of transfer, Assessment of student, Situational background, and Support.

Student Identification.  The first element, student identification, includes basic academic information about the student that any advisor or department should know, including the student’s name, what major they are transferring from and where they are transferring to, the catalog year, and any minors, certifications, or concentrations the student is pursuing.  We also recommend including the classification of the student (i.e., freshman, sophomore, etc.) and his or her academic standing at time of transfer (i.e., good standing, academic warning, etc.).  While unassuming in nature, this information can help a new advisor start to develop a working plan of degree completion.

Purpose of Transfer.  The second element of S-PASS answers the looming question of why the student is transferring.  This is key information that can, and often does, get lost in the shuffle.  Is the student transferring because they do not have the requisite GPA for their initial major?  Have they decided to pursue a specific career, like medicine, and understand that a biology major can help them learn more relevant skills than history?  Has the student actually spoken with anyone about the transfer?  Finally, has an audit been prepared for the student in an effort to show what the transfer would mean for their overall academic plan?  The information in this element will help form a mental model of what is needed to assist the student in a successful transition.

Assessment.  The third element allows advisors to share professional assessments of students and their needs.  Advisors share brief synopses of their advising interactions, the outcomes of those interactions, and what follow-up, if any, is required.  In this section, the advisor can provide professional assessment on what impacts this transfer might have on a student’s development.  It is also an opportunity for advisors to share identified strengths and areas for improvement.

Situational Background.  The situation background element focuses on student-identified short and long term goals.  While these goals may change throughout their tenure at an institution, it is important information to share as it can assist an advisor in helping a student stay on track.  Moreover, this element identifies some additional background demographics that can foster student development and any at-risk, early alert strategies.

Support.  The final element addresses one of the most significant, but overlooked, factors in student success: support.  Through targeted conversations, advisors can help students identify their support systems, what is missing in those systems, and what is important to them in those systems.  It is also an opportunity to help students identify organizations, student activities, and events on campus to explore in order to help bolster those support systems.


Advisors have always been change agents within the higher education systems.  Creating tools, such as S-PASS, addresses the larger connection to NACADA core values, professional development, and partnerships between academic and student affairs because it answers a larger student development question: how can we as advisors improve our practice in order to improve the student experience?  It is by constantly asking these questions and not settling for empty folders that advisors will help students and institutions continue to thrive.

Amy L. Carmack, M.A., M.S.
Eastern Massachusetts Campus
Bay Path University
[email protected]

Heather J. Carmack, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Department of Communication Studies
James Madison University
[email protected]



Amato-Vealey, E. J., Barba, M. P., & Vealey, R. J. (2008). Hand-off communication: A requisite for perioperative patient safety. AORN, 88(5), 763-774.

Beckett, C. D., & Kipnis, G. (2009). Collaborative communication: Integrating SBAR to improve quality/patient safety outcomes. Journal for Healthcare Quality, 31(5), 19-28.

Carmack, A. (2006, September/October). Communication matters: Part II – Provider-to-provider communication. Topics in Patient Safety, 6(5), 3.

Carroll, T. L. (2006). SBAR and nurse-physician communication: Pilot testing an education intervention. Nursing Administration Quarterly, 30(3), 295-299.

Dunn, E., Mills, P., Neily, J., Crittenden, M., Carmack, A., & Bagian, J. (2007, June). Medical Team Training: Applying crew resource management in the Veterans Health Administration. Joint Commission on Quality and Safety, 33(6), 317-325.

Falzetta, L., Carmack, A., Robinson, L., Murphy, J., & Dunn, E. (2007, September/October). Improving communication in healthcare. Patient Safety and Quality Healthcare, 4(5), 18-20.

Habley, W. R. (2003). Faculty advising: Practice and promise. In G. L. Kramer (Ed.), Faculty advising examined: Enhancing the potential of college faculty as advisors (pp. 23-39). Boston, MA: Anker.

Habley, W. R. (Ed.). (2004). The status of academic advising: Findings from the ACT Sixth National Survey (Monograph No. 10). Manhattan, KS: National Academic Advising Association.

Haig, K. M., Sutton, S., & Whittington, J. (2006). SBAR: A shared mental model for improving communication between clinicians. Journal on Quality and Patient Safety, 32(3), 167-175.

Hohenhaus, S., Powell, S., & Hohenhaus, J. T. (2006). Enhancing patient safety during hand-offs. American Journal of Nursing, 106(8), 72A-72C.

King, M., & Kerr, T. (2005). Academic advising. In M. L. Upcraft, J. Gardner, & B. O. Barefoot (Eds.), Challenging and supporting the first-year student: A handbook for improving the first year of college (pp. 320-338). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Cite this article using APA style as: Carmack, A.L., & Carmack, H.J. (2016, June). S-PASS: Using hand-off communication strategies for academic advising. Academic Advising Today, 39(2). Retrieved from [insert url here]

Posted in: 2016 June 39:2


There are currently no comments, be the first to post one!

Post Comment

Only registered users may post comments.
Academic Advising Today, a NACADA member benefit, is published four times annually by NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. NACADA holds exclusive copyright for all Academic Advising Today articles and features. For complete copyright and fair use information, including terms for reproducing material and permissions requests, see Publication Guidelines.