With midterms underway, the differences in teaching styles between French and American universities are on my mind. It’s been interesting to realize how much we take for granted in this regard. While taking classes in the U.S., there are many elements of academia that I wrongly assumed to be universal norms. Some of the most important ones are class structures and student-teacher relations.
Although we all have our ups and downs, I generally consider myself a successful student. But this is very much contingent on some underlying assumptions regarding what professors at the University of Texas want and expect from me. The same rules don’t really apply at Sciences Po. I’ve struggled with many aspects of education in France, mainly the lack of written instructions (often professors give instructions orally during class but don’t offer written prompts, or study guides) and the fact that grades on individual assignments are not usually disclosed – you only receive your final grade at the end of the semester. Professors in France are generally more traditional authority figures, and a lot of lectures seem to be about relaying streams of information, with little debate or questioning on the part of the students.
It was challenging adapting to these differences, but after a somewhat confusing period, I’ve began seeing the value of these educational techniques. The material taught here is more factual and less ideological than what I’ve been taught in the U.S. Personally, I love debate and usually prefer classes that foster it, so this lecture-centric approach has forced me to develop my focus and concentration in the classroom. I’ve also become a lot more precise when giving responses, because I’ve found that when French professors ask questions in class, they are seldom looking for an informed opinion or a short answer: there is one right answer and it has to be both concise and exact. They are stict about staying on-topic, limitations on assignments (regarding number of pages, or time for oral presentations) and layout/methodology.
It took me a little while but I’ve began to realize how much I’m really benefiting from the vastly different methods utilized in higher education in France. A highly structured, authority-oriented and lecture-intense environment? I couldn’t have found a better fit to challenge my assumptions.