Friday, 19 December 2014

Tertiary 'cultural' surprises

I think I'm approaching burnout from all the evaluations I've had to do for close to 250 students. There's scarcely a week when I'm not evaluating a class. It leaves precious little time for actually teaching. While it may be necessary and a good challenge for the students to work on oral assignments (indeed I agree with this requirement), the classes are mostly too large for language learning. It gets a bit tedious for the students and me to sit through oral presentations and debates for 6 weeks of a 12 week course. It would be alright if classes were smaller but with 25-37 students in the classes it's not ideal.

Now we're in exam week. Each class has a two hour exam. This is a lot softer than the usual three hours in NZ. I was also rather surprised to find the French system doesn't actually require students to attend class in order to have a final mark. A student contacted me this week (week 12) to announce his existence and to tell me he needed an evaluation in order to complete his course. Thing is, he never attended a single lesson and was never on the attendance list. He had decided to make his other classes or his extramural work a priority and so wasn't available to attend any of my lessons. He wasn't available to attend the final class either yet I'm expected to give him a mark. Too bad about the injustice of this situation compared to the students who do turn up to class and do their assignments as requested by the administration. He spoke in English to me for 10 minutes and this had to be enough to pass a course. The administration tell me that's how things work in France.

When I was studying for my degree in Auckland we had to attend virtually every lesson and pass each assignment plus the final exam in order to pass. Clearly, France has different standards. I think this is very evident where foreign languages are involved. I don't see how one can develop competence in a foreign language if one doesn't actually study it in class. Some of my students (I'm not always aware of their existence) are in what is called contrôle terminal. That means they are excused from attending classes and doing assignments. They just need to turn up for the final written exam and pass that. Pedagogically, I don't understand how that's supposed to give you language competence. So what do their degrees really mean?

I come from a different culture and I have different values so I found myself suffering some more culture shock this week, just when I thought I was now vaccinated against it. I never cease to be amazed at how different social, political, educational and moral systems can be. France is not the land of égalité when it comes to tertiary education. The Grandes Ecoles get the cream of French students and the universities get the 'left-overs' and my students complain to me about feeling like second-class citizens.  has this to say... 
"More than half of the students with a Baccalauréat général continue their curriculum at university. University corresponds to European standards and offers the degrees License, Master, Doctorat which correspond to Bachelor, Master and PhD. French universities are open to all bacheliers, that is students who have passed their baccalauréat. However, while some types of degree course are open to all, scientific and medical courses are usually only open to students who have passed a scientific baccalauréat. In most of the countries in the world, the institutions providing the finest centres of excellence, are universities. Not so in France where the education pinnacle is represented by Grandes Écoles, small and highly selective schools which provide a cosseted higher education to the future elites. "

It's a pity, as the more capable and motivated students in a population can lift the efforts and aspirations of others in class. The consequences of this elitist system are evident in the lack of maintenance and cleanliness and facilities at French universities. Most days it's very difficult to find a toilet that has any toilet paper in it, black-out curtains that move, or even internet in a classroom.

I don't ever remember anything approaching this state of education in NZ when I was studying for my degree. Do you know of students passing without attending class or sitting exams - does this system exist in Aotearoa; or universities unable to provide basic toilet cleaning in New Zealand?

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Anonymous said...

It's ridiculous. I went to almost all my lessons (I missed a handful for legit reasons like having the flu), but some (and in some lessons, a lot) of my classmates basically never showed up. Yet they still passed. They even had the nerve to ask for notes!

At my university in the US, we had a lot more work during the semester that was marked and counted towards the final mark. Sometimes, even participation in class was averaged in. There was also an attendance policy where if we had more than two unexcused absences, we were knocked down a mark.

When I was teaching at an engineering school, I had a similar experience to yours. Some students I only saw for marked presentations and exams. It annoyed me so much.


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