HC Abroad: The French Education System


Because school is one of the most important aspects of studying abroad (riiiight?), I thought I would share my perspective on the French education system, particularly the universities and my school, l’Université d’Aix-Marseille.

The walk to school.

The middle school here is called collège and students typically take general classes in preparation for the next stage in their education, or technical classes in preparation for a vocational high school.  After collège students go to lycée, which is the equivalent of our high schools.  The main purpose of lycée is to prepare students to sit the baccalauréat exam (which is similar to British A levels).  After this, students may choose to continue in higher education. At les universités, the Bachelor’s degree is called le license and the Master’s degree is also called a Master’s.

Some of my books for the year.

The classroom setting at the université is very different from what I’m used to at Western.  Most classes are very small (about 10 to 12 students) and are based mostly on discussion.  I only have two classes that take place in the ampitheaters (like a lecture hall), and they’re both combined with additional discussion hours.  In these small classes there’s an emphasis on answering a question set by the teacher the week before, and then continued discussion on this or a similar topic.  In the larger lecture-style classes, students are expected to listen to the teacher lecture.  Because I am taking all English literature courses (except for my one French course) the marking system is basically the same across the board... and it is enough to make me quake in my boots.  We’re graded on a final oral exam worth 100% of our grade.  From what I can tell, in these exams you are given an excerpt from the text(s) you’ve studied and are required to “comment upon it”.  That’s all the direction you’re given.

Throughout the term, we only have one, or at most two, books to read for each class.  To be honest, that’s a little mind-blowing to me, since at Western I study anywhere from five to ten novels in one semester.  The teachers do, however, set a few additional texts for any keeners.

They also use this weird paper called séyès paper, which is intended to help young students learn to write in cursive handwriting.  However, it’s still the most common (and almost the only type of paper available) among students in university.  I can’t believe how much I miss something so simple as a regular lined pad of paper.  (On a similar note, the A5 and A4 paper sizes really throw me off too -- they’re only a tiny bit different than American/Canadian sized paper, but it’s enough to drive me crazy!)

While I can see some benefits to the French education system, I really long for the style of teaching at home.  Unlike the French, most Canadian institutions encourage free-thinking and independent thought, as well as a variety of interpretations and perspectives to texts -- the professor is not always right.  While that’s not to say the French education style denounces all form of creativity in the classroom, it’s definitely a lot more controlled and guided than I’m used to.

It’ll be interesting to see what I have to say after those horrid-sounding final oral exams...

If you’re interested in following more of my study abroad adventures, hop on over to bonjour-provence.blogspot.com and take a look at my personal travel blog!

Kaitlyn is a 20-year-old third-year student at the University of Western Ontario, currently studying abroad in Aix-en-Provence, France, at Aix-Marseille University. She is majoring in English Literatureand is currently the copy editor for College Gloss and a blogger for the UWO Arts & Humanities student blog. Kaitlyn hopes to do a Masters degree in English Literature and one day work in publishing. Aside from being obsessed with the written word, Kaitlyn enjoys running, sailing, travelling, and making music (she plays both the piano and flute). She's looking forward to making new connections and getting lots of experience working with Her Campus!

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