Assessment System at Up-Saclay: The Fabulous Four

Even since I came to the University of Paris Saclay (Up-Saclay), I have been facing a new education curriculum and more specifically a new assessment system – vastly different from my undergraduate experience back in Bangladesh. Over the last seven months, I have found this distinct system pretty powerful for learning, and surely less stressful regarding memorization perspectives. In this blog, I will discuss four fabulous assessment methods for a master’s student, designed by Up-Saclay, to get their ultimate degree. Also, I will present my arguments: why this system is far better than the previous system I faced – back in Bangladesh – to rekindle the critical thinking ability of master-level students. 

However, before I dive deep into the precise assessment methods in detail, I’d love to highlight the differences between the French grading system and the CGPA or GPA system – normally used in my country, the United States, and the United Kingdom.

French Grading System

If I had to define the French grading system in my own words, it would look something like this.

  1. The total mark for each subject or course is 20. So, If you get 10-11.9/20, your grade will be Passable (Pass). In this case, the additional comment for you is ‘Almost Sufficient’.
  2. If you get 12-13.9/20, your grade will be Asses Bien.*  In this case, the additional comment for you is ‘Amply Sufficient’.
  3. If you get 14-15.9/20, your grade will be Bien. In this case, the additional comment for you is ‘Good’.
  4. If you get 16-20/20, your grade will be the highest – Tres Bien.* In this case, the additional comment for you is ‘Very Good’.
*Remember one thing, to get a Distinction in the French education system, you need 12 or more out of 20. If you maintain 14+, everybody will appreciate you, and you will be eligible to apply to any doctoral school (Saclay, Sorbonne, IP Paris) for your Ph.D. 

In reality, approximately 1–2% of students are able to achieve the Tres Bien grade. Because the grading method and marking standards in French universities are not kind – in fact, they are frequently harsh. However, you can obtain the best grade – even a flawless score – if you put forth the constant effort, day after day, in every evaluation system.

Now let’s dive deep into the assessment methods in detail with some reasonable arguments.

Assessment Methods

  • Analytical Presentation of Scientific Paper

In Up-Saclay, more than 40% of marks for any course depend on how good you are at your analytical presentation skills on a given scientific paper. To give more context, at the beginning of any course, a corresponding teacher usually gives 2/3 lectures on a specific topic. After that, he or she usually provides students with a scientific paper (a recent article regarding that topic) and asks them to prepare a scientific presentation. Usually, a group of 2/3 students presents one scientific article. During the preparation of the presentation, students have to follow guided questions provided by the corresponding professor, e.g.

  1. Introduce the scientific context of this scientific article and what are the main biological questions the author wants to solve with their research?
  2. Describe how a certain protocol fits into a particular experiment? Do you think any other alternative experimental strategies help you to solve the same questions?
  3. Interpret each figure with correct reasoning, and what can you conclude from your interpretation? Do you have any hypothesis after each conclusion?
  4. Draw an overall conclusion or model at the end of your presentation.
  5. Discuss the weak points of the paper.

Each presentation usually lasts for 20-30 minutes. After finishing the presentation, both teachers and students can ask questions. Especially corresponding teacher must ask questions, from different parts of the student’s presentation, for around 5-10 minutes. 

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Challenges and Gains

To do well in this section, the biggest challenge is TIME. Usually, there is 2 or 3 presentation per week. So, students who can prepare their presentation within a short span of time and synch well with their other group mates, have a big chance to achieve good marks in the end. Ultimately, this method forces students to read scientific papers faster than usual and pushes them beyond their normal ability to prepare a presentation within a short span of time (an hour, sometimes within 30 minutes). Secondly, students need to understand necessary extra information in order to answer all the putative questions, expected from the respective professor, after the presentation. Thus, it helps a student to develop one of the fundamental skills – the ability to present and answer questions after a scientific talk – in academia that may help them immensely in their future research career.

  • Ability to Work in a Group

If the presentation skill is the shield to achieve a good grade at Up-Saclay, then the ability to work in a group must be a shiny ax. I already touched on this point, the importance of group work ability, a little bit in my previous blog. In my opinion, if you have excellent communication skills and group work ability, your grade automatically increases by 1.5 fold. Because the administration board of Up-Saclay believes in group work. In addition, they emphasize a lot on visual brainstorming, and the ability to reduce any argument to its very core, with the simplest but catchy keywords. 

Sometimes your groupmate may not be very good at their presentation skills. But one of the group members should objectively investigate the whole process (they call it ‘investigator’), and lift the final performance, as a team, up to the mark. Because, if you do well in a group, but other people don’t, the result will be tumorous for everyone – because all members of a group usually get an average mark at the end. So, cumulative work matters a lot. 

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Challenges and Gains

In this part, the biggest challenge is the ability to mitigate Potential Conflicts between group members. In a group, sometimes it is a very common scenario that different members have different opinions: distinct ways to present something or write something while preparing a scientific report. But, all members should understand the value of the agreeableness trait of humans, for the sake of the highest possible performance as a team. Dissolving conflicts and working on common ground, before submitting a report or presenting a scientific presentation, are two fundamental things in group work. Also, suppressing personal ego and continuous respect for other people’s opinions are necessary, and it helps master level students to develop a life-time skill. Therefore, in the future, they can handle situations better when they face similar milieus in their professional job life or in a large research team, as a potential job holder or researcher, respectively.

  • Oral Examination

The oral examination on class lectures is the third important evaluation system at Up-Saclay. After finishing the first cycle lecture of any course or subject, a student individually goes through an oral exam. The system of oral examination at Up-Saclay is different compared to my undergraduate life – back in Bangladesh. Here, a student usually discusses for 15-20 minutes (for 1 each professor), a given topic, with two or three different professors. Of course, the topic is within the boundaries of the corresponding professor’s class lectures.

At the beginning of the exam, a professor provides students with one or two figures or scientific data from their lecture slides and asks them to prepare their thoughts on that specific figure or data within 5 minutes. After five minutes, the professor expects spontaneous explanations of that figure or data from the student, and asks more involved questions, if necessary. This total discussion usually goes for 10 minutes. Professors usually ask more questions because they want to judge whether you actually understand the given topic from your heart or literally throw something out of your memory. 

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Challenges and Gains

The in-depth understanding of scientific data (wherever they are in lecture slides) is one of the big challenges to overcome for this assessment system. So, you have to be careful during the class – especially when a professor describes scientific data, as an example, to demonstrate a certain concept. Secondly, the ability to postulate a hypothesis while discussing a scientific concept with a professor during the exam is another important challenge. Because very often respective professor asks you to exercise your inference skills on a given topic. However, in my opinion, a student can benefit a lot from these types of evaluation systems, thus, preparing them for their future viva-voice examinations with reputable professors. Overall, it facilitates them to break their nervousness regarding the oral examination. 

  • Essay Writing After a Scientific Conference

During my undergraduate life, I wrote many essays (as every undergrad student does) on different topics. However, the essay writing system at Up-Saclay is starkly different compared to my previous experiences.

Here, the course coordinator usually invites a famous professor to give a scientific talk on their respective field, e.g. Non-coding RNA – of course, their field is related to our course. After the lecture, we are forced to write a 1-page summary, within 30 minutes, of his or her research talk. To compensate writing process, students are allowed to take notes while understanding the advanced scientific talk from the invited professor. So, after listening to a 2 hours conference, students can use their notes to write their final summary – they call it ‘exercising your scientific knowledge retention.’ Isn’t it thrilling? 

Image Credit: Sleek Gist

Challenges and Gains

The fundamental challenge for this part is to organize your understanding while listening to the talk from the invited professor. If you are all overall place while listening to it, you can’t write a proper essay. Secondly, you should ask questions during or after the conference if you don’t understand any important parts of the conference. It’s your right, and you should utilize it to prepare your essay as well as possible. Finally, writing a brief summary of a given scientific conference, in your own words, just after the conference, is a cognitive challenge. So, it is worth experiencing, but nerve-wracking too. On the flip slide, in my opinion, a student can learn a lot from this assessment system, e.g. understanding advanced topics and the ability to formulate relevant questions. Finally, summary writing could immensely help students to exercise their actual understanding and transform those into their own words, thus, facilitating the learning process intense but real.

These are the four assessment methods, the fabulous four, at Up-Saclay I really find interesting. I firmly believe that these evaluation methods surely help a master-level student to prepare for their career in academia more strongly than in any other place in the world.

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Md Amit Hasan

Hello! I am AMIT HASAN, first year PhD Student in Neuroscience at Institute of Neuroscience Paris-Saclay (NeuroPSI), University of Paris-Saclay, Paris, France. Previously, I completed my undergraduate degree in Biotechnology at Rajshahi University, Bangladesh. Afterward, I pursued my master’s degree in Life Sciences and Health, followed by Computational Neuroscience and Neuroengineering at the University of Paris-Saclay in Paris, France. I am highly passionate about applied research. Brainstorming research problems, doing experiments inside the laboratory, analyzing a large volume data set, and finally deducing a result from that intrigues me a lot. Since I am fond of unpredictability in life, and research capable of supplying that now and then, my future goal is to spend as much time as possible in academia. Here, I often write short stories, book reviews, and travel stories.

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