What’s so great about The Great Courses?

What’s so great about The Great Courses?

Over 25 years ago, Tom Rollins, a Harvard Law student was unprepared for an exam. He found a videotape series that would help him acquire the material efficiently. When he began to watch the video lecture series, he was surprised, impressed and inspired. The video lectures by Professor Irving Younger were engaging and powerful. An idea (and company) was born. Since then, The Teaching Company became The Great Courses Company and their repertoire of dynamic and powerful lecture series has grown to a huge catalog of offerings in a wide spectrum of subjects.


When Rollins created the company, his premise was simple (http://www.thegreatcourses.com/about-us/heritage):


  1. Find the top 1% of college professors in the world, selected entirely for their ability to teach.
  2. Use feedback from customers to help craft courses into formats uniquely designed for the lifelong learner.


Naturally, many leadership education families have seen great value in incorporating some of the The Great Courses into their personal study.

I was introduced to The Teaching Company 20 years ago by my grandfather who is the epitome of a life long learner. At that time, he was sharing some of his cassette tape lectures on American History and English Literature with me. Since then, I have become a big fan of The Great Courses Company and have acquired a small library of courses for our leadership library. We use them in several ways and I wanted to share with you how we get them for the best price and how we get the most of out them for our situation.


First, it is important to note that these courses are mostly pitched at college students and adults. There are some newer courses which have been designed specifically to meet the needs of teens. Generally, however, please know that these courses do not pretend to child friendly. Children are not their intended audience and so references to sex and adult activities may be included (in appropriate ways). However, with some supervision on my part, we have used many of these courses in our Kidschool with great success.


You, Not Them. I purchase these courses with two audiences in mind: myself and my children. (This is not my husband’s cup of tea.) Some courses are just for me (at this time) and so I am not particularly concerned about how mature they might be or whether or not my children will find them to be “boring”. These courses I incorporate into my afternoon study time.


Kidschool. Some courses I purchase with the intention of sharing them with my children in Kidschool. This has been a lot of fun and we have learned alot. My 7 1/2 year old loves all things engineering and so the course on Greek and Roman Technology has been great for us.


Now, these courses are not cheap. They can be gotten for huge discounts but even then they will gobble up a big part of a homeschool budget. Here are some ideas on how to purchase them as economically as possible.


Format. When looking at a course, note whether or not it offered in audio as well as video. With some exceptions, courses that are offered as audio are not substantially better as video and therefore can be acquired at a savings if purchased in audio format. Interestingly, most of the audio courses can be purchased a radical discount if you are an Audible member. Audible members can purchase most of the Great Courses audio library for 1 credit per course. You will lose out on some things – photos and seeing the professor. However, if it is being offered in audio, then The Great Courses company is confident that the course is not diminished by not being seen.


Example: Professor J. Rufus Fears’s (one of my favorites) Life Lessons from the Great Books. To purchase his course new from The Great Courses Company it would cost $70-85 on sale (plus shipping if applicable).

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The very same course can be purchased from Audible. $41.95 from non-members, $29.36 for members or even better yet – 1 credit for members with any credits. (And since I am on the 24 credits all at once plan, that is less than $10 per credit for me; if you haven’t seen my post on Audible, check it out here.)

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Audible has over 350 Great Courses Company courses available in this way. In fact, my grandfather asked me if I wanted to borrow his old cassette tape lectures. To listen to them I would have to purchase a tape to MP3 converter. On a whim, I saw that Audible carried all of the courses in question and decided that at $10 a course it was worth my time to just put those on my wishlist for someday.


What about math and science courses? Those tend to be visually intensive. Yes. Those I always purchase from The Great Courses. I want to be able to see those. Most of the video courses today are streaming enabled. Most, not all. The question then becomes, why would I pay for a dvd and the shipping when those two things can add $20+ to the cost of the course?


In most cases, I am comfortable with just purchasing it in download format (streaming is automatically included in any video course – download or dvd). The course book is sent via PDF and is perfectly accessible for my uses. In some cases, however, the course is enhanced by a powerful workbook.


On Cyber Monday, the Great Courses Company had an incredible sale. Some courses were 90% off, free shipping and an additional $20 off a total order. I confess to having stocked up on a number of good deals that day.


I purchased Mathematics from the Visual World in DVD because streaming was not available. (Rare). As you can see, the “guidebook” that accompanied it is much smaller and thinner than the workbooks that accompanied the 3 High School math courses.

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Another great opportunity to save money is to purchase courses in sets. Remember that Greek and Roman Technology course I mentioned? It is very cool. The professor is a professor at West Point and is a military engineer and has 2 courses with The Great Courses. The guy uses K’Nex and Thomas the Tank Engine trains to show weight distribution on “stiffening trusses” in bridges like Brooklyn Bridge (Understanding the World’s Greatest Structures, lecture 1). We purchased these two courses together (only finding out afterwards that first 9 lectures of the structures course is free on Netflix) on Cyber Monday for less than $80. My 7 1/2 year old and I are learning a lot about engineering and physics together as we go through these courses – not to mention history! Screen Shot 2015-02-14 at 3.11.09 PMDid I mention that some of these courses are free through Netflix? Oh yes I did. Netflix and The Great Courses Company are trying an experiment right now. At the time of writing this, there are 3 courses streaming through Netflix. If you have Netflix and check them out, please be sure to rate them well. Netflix is trying to determine how valuable this partnership would be to Netflix customers. If they get the favorable results that they want, more courses may become available. Screen Shot 2015-02-14 at 3.17.42 PM

Finally, many of us are trying to find the best courses and incorporate them into our home libraries. We would love your help in developing a TJEd friendly database of course reviews. We want to keep track of the best courses and share our feedback with other TJEd families. The database is a Google doc and can be added to by any TJEd family. 


To add your reviews of Great Courses, please use this form.


To check out the reviews in the database, please follow this link.

Tagged .

I am a homeschooling mom of three living very near the Big Woods of Laura Ingalls Wilder's early childhood. I love books, food, my husband, my babies and the Good Lord.


  1. Thanks for your kind comments about my two courses! I’m particularly delighted that your son is enjoying them. If he has any questions about either course, please feel free to have him send me an e-mail.

    By the way, unless the situation has changed recently, only the first 9 lectures of “World’s Greatest Structures” are offered on Netflix. By buying the course, you got all the best stuff in Lectures 10-24.

    Thanks again!

  2. Alison says:

    Thanks for sharing these Sara! I had no idea they were on Netflix, so I checked it out last night and found The Inexplicable Universe — a bit over my head at times but really enjoyable! The first lecture discussed both Galileo and Copernicus, which coincidentally we covered with Story of the World last week, so I think I’ll see if my 8 year old gets anything out of it too 🙂

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