During my semester abroad, I lived in a sprawling Mediterranean city in the south of France. I have fond memories of long morning runs along the coastline, the smell of fish in the old port and sunbathing on the campus terrace between afternoon classes. The professors were strict but accommodating, though students had little hope of earning an A by American standards. As the French would say, a perfect score is reserved for God.
The French system is based on a 20-point scale. A 10 is passing, a 12 is adequate and anything above a 16 is considered exceptional. I remember my initial shock at learning this because, in writing, the French system seems far easier than the American one. However, in practice, the workload at a French university corresponds to that of an American one. The difference lies in its focus.
From a course-level perspective, two main differences exist between these university systems: the amount of assigned work, and the ideology behind grades.
In my opinion, the first point alludes to the much better understanding the French have of preparation and expectations. The American university system is overrun with busywork, practice work, grade boosters, etc. Ultimately, these assignments all serve as tacked-on versions of extra points for work that students should already be doing.
An MSU professor originally from Britain once told me, “American students love to have their hands held.” I would have to agree.
I should define what I mean by busywork. For example, assigned problems in a math class, while providing practice, don’t provide the same function from student to student. For those who already understand the concepts, these problems are a waste of time. For those who need the extra practice, assigned problems serve as a pat-on-the-back. This system incentivizes students through points rather than through the end result of learning. This is not to say that professors shouldn’t provide suggested practice problems. However, assigning such work for credit takes away the function of self-responsibility necessary for future successful careers.
This ultimately loops back to the contradicting ideologies of grading between the two countries. In France, the idea that perfection should be a rarity is paramount to the university grading system. There is no extra assigned work to boost a low grade. Instead, students are expected to produce quality end results, whether in the form of a final exam or a semester project. Additionally, the respective performance of one’s peers is accounted for in the final grade. This replicates the reality of adulthood, where career performance is measured by output and comparison.
This variety of grading is not specific to France. In fact, most universities outside of the U.S. follow a similar pattern. That’s not to say that French universities are faultless — they’re not, but that’s another matter entirely.
Ultimately, I am brought back to the coastal hikes, the seaside cafes — these are the moments I will remember most. A mass of assigned busy work would not have allowed time for a such an immersive experience. The opportunity for immersion should not be limited to international exchanges. Through assigning less day-to-day work, professors shift the focus from earning points to producing results. This system allows students to allocate their study time more freely because all of this hand-holding only slows things down.