You will find that the organization of a French university is quite different from that of U.S. institutions. This information about coursework, grading and credits will help you easily navigate the French academic system.

Types of courses

In the university system, courses are usually organized into modules. Some of these are mandatory and some are elective. To earn a degree, students must complete a certain number of modules. Once a module has been completed, it counts toward a degree.

Modules at French universities are taught using two basic forms:

  • Lecture courses (known as cours magistral) are held in halls seating from 100 to 500 students. The professor presents the subject, and the students take notes. Many professors prepare and distribute course outlines or lecture notes to help students prepare for exams. Attendance is not checked, but is certainly recommended so that you can keep up with the material.
  • Study sections (known as travaux dirigés (TD) or travaux pratiques (TP)) consist of small groups of students. In these seminar-style sections, students apply and deepen their understanding of the material presented in the lecture hall. Attendance is mandatory. Study sections at grandes écoles are based heavily on projects and case studies.

 

Taking notes

If you are taking classes in French, taking notes will be rather difficult in the beginning. It’s a great idea to ask a French student if you can borrow his or her notes. This will also give you a better idea of how French students take notes (they learn a specific note-taking system in the early years of their schooling) – and will also provide you with the opportunity to make a new friend!

 

Assessing student performance

Grades are given out based on:

  • short tests given throughout the semester that allow professors to check what students have learned in each unit; and
  • examinations, which cover all of the material presented during the semester and are given at the end of each semester, generally just before the February break and again in June, before the summer break.

The French academic system uses a 0 to 20 grading system with 0 being the worst and 20 being the best. Theoretically, this means that a grade over 17 would be given to students who are exceptionally good, a grade of 11 would be given to an average student whose work was correct but not exceptional, and a grade below 6 would be given to students whose understanding of the subject is not sufficient. However, keep in mind that grades over 14 are rarely given. Grades over 12 generally mean the student is among the top 10 to 20 percent in the class – and a perfect “20” is extremely rare!

 

Earning academic credit

In Europe, credits earned for academic study are awarded under the European Credit Transfer
System
(ECTS). A full year of academic work represents 60 ECTS credits. Each American university has a slightly different system for converting ECTS credits into credit points in the U.S., so please contact your university’s international office if you plan to earn credit for the academic work you complete in France.

 

Academic Calendar

U.S. students will likely find the academic calendar in France to be familiar: it has two semesters, starting in fall and ending in late spring.

In France, the academic year begins in September or October and ends in May or June, depending on the institution and program.

The year is punctuated by vacations, including two weeks at the end of the year (Christmas and New Year's). The two semesters are divided by a short break following final examinations at the end of the first semester. Summer vacation lasts more than two months and always includes the months of July and August.