04/28/2014 05:49 pm ET Updated Jun 28, 2014

Dear College Students: We Really Do Read Your Evaluations

With classes quickly coming to a close on college campuses across the country, Millennials from frosh through super seniors are busy doing more than just taking final exams, writing term papers and completing class projects to please professors. They -- at least those who choose to do so -- are also completing voluntary and anonymous evaluations of those same professors.

And some of those comments won't please the professors at all, while others will. It's the students' opportunity, after all, to laud, lament, praise and criticize -- sometimes constructively, sometimes not so much -- those who will be judging their own work and bestowing grades upon them.

That's the case at the University of Florida where I have taught for five years, during which time UF's official student evaluations of teaching (SETs) migrated from traditional paper-and-pencil forms administered in classrooms and lecture halls to the realm of the Internet. Depending on the institution, data collected from undergraduates is used both in annual performance evaluations conducted by department heads and in the tenure and promotion process.

Some universities, including Florida, post summaries of the results on line; the curious could easily find mine, for instance, for both large-size undergraduate courses and small-size graduate seminars by going to the Gator Rater link for public results. Such transparency is important, if not vital, at a time when public higher education seems constantly under attack.

The big question, of course, is whether the data mean anything. In a recent piece for Slate that is, at turns, blisteringly insightful and cleverly snarky, Rebecca Schuman contends that student evaluations of their instructors "are useless," "have meant absolutely nothing," "promote sucking up to customers -- I'm sorry, students -- often at the expense of teaching effectiveness," and include "off-topic vitriol, irrelevance, bias." She also lambasts the online anonymity of such evaluations, opining that the online disinhibition effect facilitates "unethical, rash behavior, and today's digital native students see no difference between evaluations and the abusive nonsense they read (and perhaps create) every day." There's even a parting shot that "only in the rarest and most politicized cases do even scathing evaluations harm tenured big shots -- who, unsurprisingly, often care about undergraduate teaching the least."

There's clearly a lot of unpacking to do there and to which about 800 words cannot do justice, but let's start by acknowledging and agreeing on two things. First, online student evaluations of professors are, standing alone, imperfect measures of pedagogical performance. Just as some professors may curry evaluative favor by bringing donuts to class on the last day of the semester or by taking part in the pernicious practice of inflating grades in the belief that higher marks will necessarily translate to higher evaluations, so too will some students abuse evaluations by lading them with ad hominem attacks and sartorial irrelevancies (although I'll take irrelevant compliments any day).

Second, there truly is great concern among some faculty that online evaluations tend to lead to lower participation rates (compared to in-class survey administration) and that, in turn, those students who are motivated to participate online have an axe to grind against their instructors.

But in the off-hand chance that some undergraduates -- a few even -- are actually reading this, please understand that many of us truly do read your comments and, in fact, take quite seriously your feedback. In my eighteen years as a tenure-line professor at two major public institutions, I can assure you that the majority of us -- tenured and untenured -- really do review your comments and, furthermore, sometimes obsess about the negative ones.

Importantly, some of us also have found that the best way to receive favorable evaluations from you is -- without sounding too much like an old Smith Barney commercial that you are too young to remember -- to earn them by setting high standards, being fair in the administration of those standards and, most importantly, by bringing enthusiasm, passion and timely, real-world examples to the classroom.

Sure, we recognize you are part of the post-Cobain, post-"here we are now, entertain us" generation. You're a generation of Millennials that supposedly are "entitled and whiny" and, yes, some of you will take the opportunity to strike back with thoroughly unconstructive and even vindictive criticism of your professors. That is inevitable and that ultimately is your right. Most of you, however, will rise to the occasion and fairly evaluate us, especially if you understand that your comments really can help us improve courses and really do affect how we are evaluated.

In fact, you actually are both customers and students, and you (or your parents) pay a good chunk of change and likely accrue substantial loans as part of the education transaction. Part of the education transaction is the mutual understanding that you are not entitled to a degree just by showing up, just as we are not entitled to excellent evaluations by phoning in lectures.

Ultimately, the highest evaluations you can ever give us come not in the form of university-administered student evaluations, but in the unsolicited emails and, even still today, handwritten notes we receive much later after you've had the time to fairly reflect on your professors and educational experience. That's not much consolation for those faculty aspiring for tenure or hoping to have their contracts picked up for another year, so I only encourage you to please fairly and thoroughly complete those evaluations. They really are meaningful.