French Language Blog

Adventures in French Education: CM and TD Posted by on Jan 21, 2015 in Culture

Before the shock of not being able to get un vingt (a twenty), there was another big surprise that was waiting for me dans une université française (in a French university). Most classes in France tend to be broken down into “CM”s and “TD”s. That is lecture classes and “supervised” classes.

Now, the same idea does exist dans les universités américaines (in American universities), namely in the sciences where there’s the main class and a lab attached to it. In France the idea is applied much more generally and the style of teaching is completely different.

CM stands for Cours Magistral, and is often explained as, “c’est comme un seminar chez vous  (It’s like your seminar classes) !” En général (in general) think of it as a lecture class where le professeur (the professor) goes through une leçon (a lesson) while the students write down notes.

However, there are some big differences. Sitting through my first CM barely able to follow what le professeur was saying, I was surprised to see nearly all of mes camarades de classe (my classmates) keeping impeccable notes, with outlines clearly built in, even including footnotes and colors. Shortly thereafter I was incredibly annoyed to notice that le professeur was just reading notes he had made, sometimes just reading from a book… and everyone continued to copy down what le professeur was saying.

En France, most universités publiques (public universities) don’t have required books to help keep costs down. That leads to the CM somewhat replacing the role a textbook would have dans une université américaine. At the time I couldn’t help but think to myself, “just let me read the book, it’d be so much easier!”

The other side of the education coin is the TD, or Travail Dirigé, the “supervised” class, a practical application of the lecture class, at least en théorie (in theory). Pendant un TD (during a TD) le professeur goes through prepared exercises and en théorie there’s some level of interaction. It took me très longtemps (a long time) to understand all that, but after asking questions pendant des CMs and getting strange looks from le professeur and mes camarades de classe, I was told, plus ou moins (more or less), “On pose pas des questions pendant un CM, il faut attendre le TD (You don’t ask questions during a lecture, you have to wait for the other class) !”

All of this comes from the strong Cartesian influence in French education, and while it’s easy to just think of it as annoying and trop différent de comprendre (too different to understand), if you are planning on studying in France, it’s a very important part of le système d’éducation (the education system) that needs to be understood. Au moins (at least) if you want to éviter des casse-tête (avoid a few headaches)!

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About the Author: John Bauer

John Bauer is an enthusiast for all things language and travel. He currently lives in France where he's doing his Master's. John came to France four years ago knowing nothing about the language or the country, but through all the mistakes over the years, he's started figuring things out.


  1. Doug:

    Spell check for the word for twenty.

    • John Bauer:

      @Doug Oops! Thanks for pointing that out!

  2. Lisa:

    So for an art history class, for example, do students take a CM and the corresponding TD? Or does a person choose according to their preference? For a given specialization or major, are a certain number of CMs required vs TDs?

    • John Bauer:

      @Lisa I didn’t get into too much detail, but the whole idea of “making your own schedule” and “signing up for classes” doesn’t really exist in France. I plan on writing about it in a later post, but in general the big difference is that in France you don’t get accepted into a Univeristy like you would in the US or Canada, you get accepted into the program for the year. You then have to reapply at the end of the year if you want to continue with the degree.

      All the CMs and TDs will be designated for a given year and you have to do all of them if you’re accepted into in the program. To get more to the heart of your question, a class like art histroy would very likely only exist as a CM with no coresponding TD.

  3. cristian Sampayo:

    Well. I thought i was the only one feeling myself in such a square educational adventure. At the beginning i could not understand the idea of going to a class and just listen. Actually in many occasions even thought to let my phone on the table, record the two hours class and go to the B.U ( bibliothèque Universitaire) and read a book and then come back for the devise.
    The fact that you cannot ask questions, made me feel like a robot typing things that only knew what they weere about some days before the exam.
    Another huge issue that even today cannot stand is that teachers believe you are uncapable to do and propouse things when research involved. The plan is a SACRED INSTITUTION. I agree you need coherence and organisation but in france seems education is ALL PART OF A PLAN which you cannot live without.