University of Wisconsin–Madison

Learning How to School

Sometimes, it’s hard to remember that “study abroad” starts with the word “study.” You’re telling me this isn’t a four-month vacation?

It’s true, it’s not. Just like Madison, classes have midterms, tests and papers. But what’s different is that’s all they have.

For example, let’s say you have a class in Madison that’s graded like this: one midterm worth 30% of your grade, a final that’s worth 30% of your grade, a couple pop quizzes that combine to 15% of your grade and then the rest of the grade is attendance/participation. That’s a pretty standard grade distribution.

However, that isn’t all. The first day of class, you get a syllabus. This piece of paper holds everything you need to know for the semester, from what pages you need to have read on what days, the dates of tests, the books you need to read.

In France, none of that is true. Your grade? Typically, it’s 50% midterm or paper, 50% final. That’s it, everything depends on how you do on those two grades. You also don’t know these dates until later. Our finals period goes from April 14-28, and we won’t know our final dates until the end of March.

Furthermore, a syllabus is a pretty foreign concept. Instead, you’re given a list of about 25 books on various concepts from the class and you’re told to try and read all of them. Being an exchange student, I knew that was impossible. In one class, I approached the professor and voiced my concerns, asking if he had suggestions which books I should read first. He shrugged and said “whichever sounds the most interesting.”

If you ask me, the French system is a recipe of stressfulness. You have no clue how much to do, when to do it and how well you’re absorbing the information because there’s no small grades that act as indicators.

What makes it worse is the structure of the classes. In Madison, you often get three, 50-minute lectures per week, and maybe a 50-minute discussion section. And in those classes, teachers read off of slides that have all the information you need.

France, meanwhile, takes those separate lectures and says “What if we just did everything at once?” The result is one torturous, three-hour long lecture once a week. It’s usually split up by a 10-15-minute break right in the middle. That is unless your teacher is super French and has a smoking habit; in that case, you get two 10-minute breaks so he can go outside and grab some quick puffs.

And in that class, you better be paying attention. Some teachers will stand there and talk for three hours, with no power points or any sort of visual aid. If you’re just honing your French skills and can’t possibly understand 18th century European philosophy for three hours, your best bet is try as hard as you can, and then make a friend with somebody who takes notes on their laptop and have them email it to you. Fortunately, French students understand and are almost always happy to send them to you.

Is the system better here? Honestly, it’s a matter of personal opinion. Talking to one professor, she said that three-hour lectures annoy the professors just as much as the students? But without a doubt, school itself has easily been the biggest culture shock for me.