Q&A: Can I Use My Online Instructor as a Reference?

Answer: This is a great question. I've had many students ask me to write a reference letter and/or ask if they can use me as a reference for graduate school or a career opportunity. My response depends on how well I know the student and how well they've done in the class. If you think that you may want to use your instructor as a reference in the future, it's important to build a good academic relationship.

  1. First, make sure to introduce yourself to the instructor, as soon as class begins, through e-mail or a private message. Tell them your name, the class you are taking (because many online teachers handle more than one class at a time), your major and your academic and career goals. Keep it short and to the point, but friendly. Also, include that you are looking forward to the course.

  2. Second, respond to any individual messages and/or assignment feedback from your instructor. If your instructor sends you an e-mail or in-class message, make sure to respond as soon as you can. This means you should frequently check your messages. When you receive feedback on an assignment, you should let your teacher know that you've received it. Thank your teacher for any praise and ask for clarity on anything you need to do differently. This tells your instructor that you are attentive and strive to exceed.

  3. Third, make sure you are fully participating in the course through discussions, group work (if applicable) and on-time submission of your work. This can show your instructor that you are responsible and have good time-management skills. Also, if anything comes up that may keep you from class or from submitting work on time, notify your instructor ASAP (hopefully, this is rare). This shows that you have good communication skills as well.

If you feel like you are doing well in the course and your instructor would be a great reference for you, ask him or her by the middle of the course. This allows them time to get to know you better and for them to think about the response. Some instructors may say no. If you are open to hearing criticism (especially if it will help you become a better student or more valuable employee), than ask if there are areas they feel you need to work on.

If your instructor says yes, make sure to give them the details of what you are pursuing. Give your instructor plenty of notice if they need to write a letter or fill out paperwork/forms. At least two weeks would be appropriate. Hopefully, this can be a great opportunity to build a positive academic relationship with your instructor and result in a great reference for you in the future.

Dr. Beverley BrowningDr. Beverly A. Browning (Dr. Bev) has been a higher education adjunct faculty member for over 25 years. She has taught in the classroom and online for multiple colleges and universities including Spring Arbor College, Baker College of Flint, Mott Community College, and Rio Salado College. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan, Spring Arbor College and Mott Community College. She is currently an online instructor for ed2go.com (Cengage Learning). In addition to founding and directing the Grant Writing Training Foundation, Dr. Bev is also Vice President of Grants Professional Services for eCivis, Inc. She is the author over over 37 grant-related publications and a frequent keynote speaker and workshop presenter for national and regional conferences. Dr. Bev is a product of lifelong learning and an advocate for online teaching and learning!