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Robert O'Haver


Proper documentation of spreadsheets and other forms of digital analysis is a common problem for business students entering professional practices.

For example, when a spreadsheet is constructed and poorly documented as to assumptions and related descriptions the ability of others to effectively use the spreadsheet is eroded. This is particularly true when spreadsheets are prepared at the staff level, where such staff may subsequently leave the organization and others are left to rely on the document for important purposes (e.g., audits).

Part of this problem could be alleviated by helping students first develop awareness of why poor documentation is a problem and then to develop habits and skills thereby enabling proper levels of documentation.

This note describes an innovative approach used in an undergraduate accounting classroom. The innovation involves the use of workshops relying on certain types of co-presenters to facilitate student awareness to aid students in their preparation of Excel based analyses.

While a short review of the relevant literature helps frame the issue, there is little published on best practices in teaching the documentation topic. The author explains the structure of the workshop (within the context of the class assignment) and provides the specific documentation elements emphasized.

Evidence is provided as to the effectiveness of the approach. Thoughts and resources to enable replication are also supplied.


Examples of specific documentation habits:

  • Preparer name/date; QC reviewer name and brief description of what level of review was undertaken/date.
  • Version Control ID/shared drive locator (if appropriate).
  • Identification of the existence and location of corresponding cell formula map.
  • Use of footnotes in the table as appropriate, use of Notes at the bottom of the table as appropriate.
  • Use of color coded cells to highlight salient outcomes for the reader when the spreadsheet is dense.
  • Use of proper titles and subtitles, including units of measurements for rows and columns, as appropriate.
  • Complete source documentation, including input/output references to other tables.
  • List of assumptions (can be placed in notes).
  • Consistent use of font sizes, table numbers, headings… so that all the exhibits follow a common protocol for all spreadsheets in a report or table.
  • Use of "check" columns or cross tabs (at least on drafts) so that the reviewer has easy visual evidence that controls were used in the construction of the report.
  • Avoid unnecessary repetition of symbols (e.g., $) or use of decimal numbers when largely irrelevant.
  • Consider (as appropriate) indicating how this results of the spreadsheet should be used and/or what other analysis the document flows into (or is sourced from).


2017, Spreadsheets in Education, Volume 10, Issue 2, Article 3, December

Full article

Teaching spreadsheet documentation skills using practitioner based workshops