Adapting to the French University System

People often romanticize the study abroad lifestyle—no homework, wine with lunch, and easy travel for plenty of weekend getaways. But not everything is smooth sailing for international students in France.

Starting my year abroad at Sciences Po Lyon, it didn’t take me long to realize that professors in France are pretty different from professors in America. Coming from a small liberal arts school, I was used to being close to my professors. Most of them knew my name, and would say hi to me when we saw each other on campus. I had even eaten meals with a couple of them.

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So when I found myself in a French film class at Sciences Po, wondering what our final exam was going to be like, my natural inclination was to send an email to my professor. At the very least I would get the information I needed, and I thought it might even open up a line of communication for the future. But my professor’s response proved me wrong. He replied with one terse sentence: “you’ve been insufficiently attentive”.

The exchange was a wake-up call, drawing sharp attention to the fact that I was not in Kansas anymore.

The student-professor relationship in France is more formal and hierarchical. Students are expected to be independent and figure things out for themselves, not to rely on professors to help them. In short, French students are to be seen–and tested–but not heard. 

In the US I was in small classes, interacting closely with my professors. The “participation” category of the grading rubric could make up 20 percent of my final grade. Professors gave quizzes every week and assigned readings, which kept me focused. I always studied for the quizzes to avoid failing. I always did the readings to avoid looking like a fool in front of my classmates.

In France, however, my final grades depended on one thing only: either a final dissertation exam, or research paper. My professors could care less about participation. They didn’t even hold office hours. A typical class session involved the professor giving a two/three hour-lecture, while half the class typed down their speech verbatim and the other half scrolled through Facebook. Students weren’t necessarily expected to come to class, and professors weren’t expected to keep them interested.

At first these new expectations were pretty nice. It was easy to just mindlessly copy down the professor’s lectures and never think about them again. And I loved having extra free time, not having to worry about readings to complete and quizzes to study for. But deep down it didn’t take long for me to start feeling stagnant. I knew that I wasn’t learning by doing the bare minimum.

My French friends explained to me that professors in France provide only the basic skeleton of information, and it’s the student’s responsibility to take the bits and pieces and flesh them out. In order to succeed in French university, I would have to change my study habits.

I started by reviewing notes from each lecture every few nights, googling events the professors had referenced to understand them better. Rather than working in my apartment all the time where I could get distracted easily, I found good study spaces in my neighborhood where others around me were productive. I first found a coffee shop down the street to go to, and when I had a lot on my plate I would go to the school library. In class I started sitting closer to the front so that I could understand my professors better. I would also ask French students for their class notes, to make sure that nothing from the lectures was being lost in translation.

Being in the French system changed my outlook on education. In the US, I was motivated to learn primarily in order to get a good grade. Of course that was also the case in France, but my real motivation came from the feeling of satisfaction that comes from truly understanding a new topic inside and out. I began to see learning as an end in itself. That change in mentality has made me more independent and responsible.

I still miss my American classes for the discussion rapport, and the close relationships I’ve had with professors back home. I’ve resigned to the fact that French classes are not interactive and French professors aren’t close to their students. I adapted by changing what I could control: my actions and my outlook.

Because of the French system, I was able to develop a self-reliance that I didn’t have before, and for that I’m really thankful.