Ah, my favorite time of year is finally here. The semester has been long and difficult, but I can finally sit back, relax and vent — it's time to fill out class evaluation forms.

Feedback is essential for any organization, be it a Web 2.0 start-up or a top-level university. Companies seek input desperately, paying marketing research firms to perform surveys and focus groups to drive product innovation and improvement. Innovators like Google make sweeping changes to early-version products based on how their users respond.

At the University of Wisconsin, students are given forms to rate each class and indicate what exactly lecturers, teaching assistants and even professors can do to improve.

At such a big university, it's difficult for some teachers to figure out how students are handling the material. Faculty members don't get much feedback from students directly; just ask the average professor how many students come to her office hours for help, much less to openly criticize the people with direct control of final grades.

So, evaluations generally consist of a Scantron-like rating portion covering a variety of basic — and mostly ambiguous — metrics, accompanied by a written section for more in-depth feedback. The forms differ from department to department, but the idea is the same throughout.

All too often, however, the volunteer with the red envelope tightens the figure-eight knot well before the allotted time has passed. Students fill in the circles, write a few words and get back to that episode of "Lost" without putting much thought into the process. It seems either they aren't thinking critically about how the university can better serve their academic needs or they just aren't up to spitting it out.

But what some students don't realize is how vital evaluations can be: Though dependent on the school and department, evaluations can be taken surprisingly seriously and cause a major stir.

Feedback from the student body can make or break a re-hiring decision or effect real change in curricula no professor previously considered revising. Non-tenured faculty members are especially vulnerable to low marks, as the results are sometimes the only quantitative measure of performance that department administrators have to work with. All it takes is a well-developed point or a couple of low scores to get those in charge thinking — seriously — about how to do things better.

But evaluations are ineffective if students just fill in the required bubbles and provide one-word answers to follow-up questions — numbers are weak if they stand unjustified. A low average would likely prompt a casual inquiry, but a resounding chorus of well-argued short essays could lead to direct action.

And after at least 12 years of sitting in classrooms, undergraduates should know what works and what doesn't. Teachers new and old can get out of touch with their pupils in short order when they're on the other side of the podium, but freshmen and seniors alike have been in the business of learning for quite some time.

What's more, with tuition rising at a substantial rate, a bad class or two could cost literally thousands of dollars — especially for non-residents. Beyond working to create a top-flight university for the merit of it, every card-holding UW student should be interested in getting the most bang for his buck.

So, relish the best opportunity to give the university what it needs to succeed. Voice concerns and provide the best feedback possible on this semester's remaining evaluations — it will only help UW teach future generations in a more efficient, focused and effective manner.

Taylor Hughes ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in information systems.