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The Great Courses review (2020): Is it worth it?

I stumbled upon The Great Courses several years ago when I noticed that a professor from my alma mater offered a class on the platform.

Although I’d never taken a course from this professor, several of my friends had raved about her lectures and had even traveled on study abroad trips with her. Out of curiosity, I decided to watch a few lectures—and I’m glad I did.

The Great Courses is one of many online educational platforms out there, though it’s been around longer than most—since the 1990s.

It markets itself primarily to “lifelong learners,” often professionals (or retired professionals) who enjoy learning about new subjects and disciplines and cultivating new skills in their free time.

In my The Great Courses review, I’ll outline how the platform works, review three Great Courses I’ve taken, and help you decide whether The Great Courses is right for you.

Let’s get started.

What is Great Courses?

great courses review catalog Founded by Thomas Rollins in 1990, The Great Courses started out offering videotaped lectures, focusing on subjects that were found to be most in-demand.

As of 2020, you can choose your preferred format (instant video, DVD, or in some cases instant audio), and the platform offers hundreds of classes in a broad range of categories. These categories include:

  • Better Living
  • Economics & Finance
  • Fine Arts
  • History
  • Literature & Language
  • Mathematics
  • Professional
  • Religion
  • Science.

As you can see, there’s a great range that encompasses many of the disciplines you’d expect at a university (History, Mathematics, etc.), as well as subject areas such as Better Living, which are more tailored to helping students build habits and cultivate hobbies.

In addition, there are classes that act as in-depth travel guides, such as this course designed to acquaint you with the history, culture, and architecture of Italy.

The Great Courses is one of the few online learning platform’s that appeal to people’s love of learning, rather than learning concrete skills for your career.

Who is The Great Courses for?

Overall, I’d say that The Great Courses platform is perfect for people who are:

  • Curious about life, and especially want to dive deeper into subjects such as History, Literature & Language, and the Natural Sciences.
  • Planning a vacation and hoping to learn more about the history and architecture of their destination before traveling.
  • Feeling stuck or adrift, and want to improve their quality of life, build healthier habits, understand interpersonal relationships and negotiations better, or develop new skills for studying and learning.
  • Instructors at a high school or university level, and want to pick up ideas and tips for making their own lectures and presentations more engaging, organizing course material, and incorporating visuals.
  • Driven primarily by innate love of learning, and simply aspire to continue learning new ideas and skills throughout life.

How much does The Great Courses cost?

The great courses plusThat depends. There are three main ways of accessing The Great Courses:

  1. Purchase individual courses on The Great Courses website.
  2. Subscribe to The Great Courses Plus.
  3. Subscribe to The Great Courses Signature Collection on Amazon Prime.

On The Great Courses website, you can buy courses individually, and the prices vary quite widely. Some courses are available at more affordable prices (around $25 to $50), some have a moderate price tag ($75 to $100), while others are on the more expensive end ($200+).

The format you choose often affects price: Instant video is less expensive than DVD.

The Great Courses runs regular sales and promotions, and you can often find great deals of up to 70% off.

The most popular option though is to subscribe to The Great Courses Plus, which lets you watch hundreds of different courses with just one subscription fee. As of June 2020, The Great Courses Plus offered a free 14-day trial, after which you can choose to pay on either a monthly (billed $20 per month) or quarterly basis (billed $45 per three months).

Another way of accessing The Great Courses is through Amazon Prime. If you have Prime, you can purchase individual lessons or an entire course, or you can get a monthly subscription for access to multiple courses.

If you already have Prime, then the best option if you want to take multiple courses is to subscribe to The Great Courses Signature Collection on Amazon.

At time of writing in July 2020, you can get a free 7-day trial, which grants you access to numerous Great Courses. After this trial period, the subscription costs $7.99/month. This is a fantastic way to gain access to tons of Great Courses at a much lower price than buying each course individually.

As you can see in the screenshot below, this Great Course on fiction writing is available on Amazon Prime Video: $2.99 per individual video lesson, $59.99 for the entire course, or $7.99 per month for a Great Courses subscription.

So to sum up:

  • If you only really want one or two Great Courses, you can purchase them individually. Keep an eye out for sales and deals.
  • If you want access to multiple Great Courses and do NOT already pay for Amazon Prime, consider a Great Courses Plus subscription.
  • If you want access to multiple Great Courses and already have Prime, then consider subscribing to The Great Courses Signature Collection via Amazon.

How The Great Courses works

As mentioned above, you can purchase The Great Courses either directly from the website, via a Great Courses Plus subscription, or via Amazon Prime. Once you have paid for your course(s), accessing and watching them is straightforward.

If you make your purchase on The Great Courses site, you can choose your format (e.g., instant video or DVD).

DVDs will be shipped to your address.

Digital versions of courses don’t require any waiting around—you’ll have immediate access and can stream videos on your computer or device. I generally opt to stream videos, but you can also download them. This is very useful if you’ll be watching them later in a place with no internet access.

Check out the The Great Courses FAQ if you run into any issues.

With an Amazon subscription to The Great Courses Signature Collection, you’ll be streaming the videos directly on Amazon Prime Video.

My experience taking 3 Great Courses

Now that I’ve covered the basics, it’s time to get down to my review: How effective and enjoyable are Great Courses? What is it actually like to take a course? What should you expect?

Here are the three Great Courses I took in full:

  1. “The Learning Brain” by Prof. Thad Polk
  2. “The Holy Land Revealed” by Prof. Jodi Magness
  3. “Learning Spanish II” by Prof. Bill Worden

“The Learning Brain” by Thad A. Polk

great courses review the learning brain “The Learning Brain” is great if you’ve ever wondered how humans learn or sought to develop more effective study skills and learning strategies for yourself.

Professor Polk teaches Psychology at the University of Michigan, where he also conducts research at the Computational & Cognitive Neuroscience Lab. He brings his expertise in the human mind and brain to this Great Course, which is all about processes of learning and remembering.

I decided to take this course because I love learning in general and am often trying to teach myself new things, whether languages, creative techniques, or vast bodies of knowledge.

Not to mention that all of us are constantly learning new skills and facts over the course of our lives—for our jobs, in our interpersonal relationships, through trial-and-error, as we encounter new technology, and so on.

It makes sense to take a pause and consider more deeply how we learn. And in particular, how we can learn more effectively and efficiently.

Polk does a great job in this class of balancing general theory and concepts with practical advice.

For instance, he has several lectures covering topics such as “Conscious, Explicit Learning” and “The Neural Basis of Explicit Learning,” which give a clear overview of this form of learning. He then lectures on “Strategies for Effective Explicit Learning,” showing you how to put all of this knowledge into practice.

The next segment of the course turns to “implicit learning”. In other words, learning that we do unconsciously and often find hard to put into words.

For example, can you explain precisely how you learned to walk, tie your shoes, or ignore the sound of your AC unit?

The second half of “The Learning Brain” is mostly centered on practical applications and advice. I found this to be a good balance. While I enjoyed learning about the human brain and memory function in general, I think that the more practical side of things probably has the widest appeal to a general audience.

We can all benefit from studying and learning more successfully.

Polk is an engaging lecturer overall, and he mixes up his lectures with visuals, demonstrations, and interactive exercises for students to try at home.

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Here are some highlights of the topics covered:

  • Understanding the different types of learning and memory (for instance, explicit vs. implicit learning, or episodic vs. semantic memory): This gives you a basic conceptual framework for the rest of the course and introduces useful terms for distinguishing among the various skills, mechanisms, and abilities used in learning.
  • How to tailor your learning strategies for different situations: Learning how to ride a bike is different from learning organic chemistry, for instance, and you’ll want to adapt your strategy accordingly to optimize learning.
  • Exercises that lend insight into your own mind and memory: Occasionally, Polk will ask you, the student, to remember something (such as a series of sentences) or try your hand at a simple challenge. These exercises are well-chosen to illustrate the concept at hand. I found this to be an effective pedagogical strategy since it broke up the lecture (a form of passive learning) and made me an active participant in the course.
  • The effects of sleep, aging, emotion, and other factors on how we learn: These lectures tackle issues that affect us all and that can either enhance or detract from our learning. Polk connects the dots between scientific research in these areas and the concrete steps we can take in our lives to get our brains ready to learn.
  • “Strategies for Effective Skill Learning”: In this half-hour lecture, Polk really focuses on the practical applications of psychology and neuroscience. He supplies tips for improving at virtually any skill, whether golf or embroidery, validating his advice with evidence from studies and real-world examples.

“The Holy Land Revealed” by Jodi Magness

the great courses holy land revealed In this intriguing class, “The Holy Land Revealed,” University of North Carolina archaeologist Prof. Jodi Magness peels back all the historical layers of the ancient city of Jerusalem and its surrounding region.

Magness has personally worked at multiple sites and brings a wealth of first-hand experience.

She has a personable speaking style, and the lectures are well-paced and run about 30 minutes each. I find this to be a good length, long enough to convey complex ideas but succinct enough to keep me engaged.

As the lectures unfold, Magness uses photos, maps, and other visual elements to illustrate archaeological sites. These images—buildings and ruins, caves and rock-cut tombs, artefacts, documents and scrolls, murals, and more—illustrate key concepts and show you examples of the raw evidence with which archaeologists work.

In her final lecture, Magness tells you about a day in the life of an archaeologist. The job may seem glamorous, though in reality it’s anything but!

As Magness makes clear, archaeological work is meticulous, often slow, and involves early mornings and long hot days in the field. I especially enjoyed her explanations of how archaeologists decide where to dig and what the digging process actually looks like.

Overall, “The Holy Land Revealed” is a lot like auditing a college lecture course—All that’s missing is a midterm and final exam.

Here’s what you can expect to learn about:

  • An introduction to the archaeology, history, and topography of the region known as “the holy land”: Where is the “holy land” and who were its first known inhabitants? Magness explains what we know about the Canaanites, early inhabitants of the region, and then discusses the arrival of the Israelites.
  • The interplay between the Hebrew Bible and archaeology: Magness deftly connects biblical passages with the available archaeological evidence.
  • Jerusalem as it was under Kings David and Solomon: You’ll learn about the ancient city’s water systems, topography, layout, and the development of biblical Hebrew script under the leadership of famous biblical king David and Solomon.
  • The influence of Alexander the Great: Alexander’s conquests ushered in a new age of Hellenistic influence on the holy land. Some examples of Hellenistic architecture survive in the region, such as the stunning Iraq el-Amir palace with its carved lions.
  • Qumran and the Dead Sea scrolls: You may have heard of these mysterious scrolls and wondered how they were found and what we know about them—Magness devotes several lectures to this fascinating subject.
  • Jerusalem at the time of Jesus: What did the city look like, and what was society like during the lifetime of Jesus, when the area was under the control of the Roman Empire? Magness also discusses the impressive building projects of Herod the Great and Jewish burial practices during this time.
  • The Dome of the Rock: This striking gold-domed building is an iconic symbol of Jerusalem and is a result of the arrival of Islam to the holy land in the 7th century. What do we know about the Dome of the Rock and the nearby Al-Aqsa mosque?

“Learning Spanish II” by Bill Worden

the great courses learning spanish review Finally, I’ll briefly review my experience taking Prof. Worden’s “Learning Spanish II.”

There are seemingly endless options and resources available for people wanting to learn Spanish, and it’s easy to become overwhelmed, unsure which one to choose.

Of course, the best language-learning program is the one that you do regularly—but that still leaves you with the dilemma of which to choose in the first place!

Overall, I think that this Great Course is engaging, well-organized, and very effective. I highly recommend it to other intermediate speakers of Spanish.

In this Level II course, you’ll learn about prepositions, reciprocal verbs, direct and indirect object pronouns, and more.

For me, the systematic lessons on Spanish verb forms was the most helpful part. I’m hopeless at coming up with the right verb conjugation, but I definitely improved after working daily through these lessons.

Prof. Worden has a friendly and energetic persona and helped keep my enthusiasm up even when covering dry grammatical concepts.

Here’s what you can expect to learn from Spanish II:

  • Essential grammar: You’ll review the present tense and prepositions in early lessons, then move on to the future tense, making commands, and using the subjunctive. Everything is very clearly explained and laid out. If you want a quick review of a specific topic (such as “para” vs. “por”), it’s easy to click on that lesson for a refresher. Otherwise, I recommend working steadily through the lessons in order. Even though some early lessons were a review for me, I filled in some gaps in my knowledge.
  • Expanded vocabulary: I definitely expanded my vocabulary in this class, as numerous new words appeared in context over the course of each lesson. Worden also gives useful tips on moving more Spanish words into the active part of your vocabulary.
  • Listening comprehension: For me, listening comprehension is probably the most stressful part of conversing in another language; I hate asking my interlocutors to repeat themselves all the time! This class has increased my confidence in my listening skills, and I feel more prepared for Spanish-language encounters.
  • Tips for studying languages: Prof. Worden begins this course with a lesson on “the key principles of effective language learning.” He ends the course with ideas for your next steps forward as a Spanish speaker. I appreciated these segments, which apply to learning virtually any language or new skill.

Alternatives to The Great Courses

the great courses review alternatives The Great Courses is a well-known classic for a reason, but what about some of its newer competitors?

Here’s a quick rundown of alternatives to The Great Courses:

Coursera

Coursera is probably the most similar alternative to The Great Courses. It offers college-level education online in a variety of subject areas, from the Social Sciences to the Humanities to the Natural Sciences.

What sets Coursera apart? For one thing, Coursera does offer certificates of completion (for a fee) and has partnered with several universities to offer entire online degrees. So, if you’re interested in an online degree in Computer Science, for example, Coursera is better-suited for you.

What about if you’re learning to fulfill your curiosity, expand your mind, and just have fun? Both The Great Courses and Coursera perform well, though I think the overall production value of The Great Courses is probably a bit higher.

The Great Courses don’t just film a given lecture course; they also collaborate with the instructor to ensure that each lecture is as engaging and cohesive as possible. So, the overall quality of The Great Courses lectures is very high, while Coursera videos are, in my experience, more uneven.

That said, many Coursera classes are extremely high-quality. And many of them are 100% free, so long as you don’t want or need a certificate. So, if you’re on a tighter budget, I  recommend checking out Coursera’s offerings.

You can also compare specific courses within your field(s) of interest, whether that’s Astronomy or Ancient History. Compare the formats (lecture length, additional activities, etc.) on Coursera vs. The Great Courses and make your decision based on the individual course at hand.

MasterClass

A relative newcomer to the online educational space, MasterClass combines polished production values with celebrity instructors such as Neil Gaiman, Simone Biles, and Gordon Ramsay.

You can read our full MasterClass review here.

MasterClass is focused on areas such as creative writing, the culinary arts, sports and games, and lifestyle. So, this isn’t the place to go for traditional lecture classes in academic fields such as History, Literature, or Philosophy.

Rather, MasterClass is in part about engaging with new skills and ideas, and in part about being inspired by people at the highest echelons of their fields.

I believe that both The Great Courses and MasterClass are worthwhile, and if you have to choose one, the right choice depends on your personal goals and priorities.

If you want traditional academic disciplines, or if you want a greater variety of classes, go for The Great Courses. If you’re passionate about creative writing or cooking, you’ll find multiple excellent MasterClasses on the topic.

MasterClass is your place if you’re curious about other creative fields such as acting, photography, and design. It has some truly unique offerings (such as a course on negotiation by Chris Voss), and it offers several excellent cooking classes by top chefs such as Alice Waters, Thomas Keller, and Gabriela Cámara.

The Great Courses also has some compelling courses on lifestyle, however. If you’re more interested in the health and nutrition side of cooking, for instance, you may be better served by Great Courses.

Skillshare

Finally, Skillshare is another online learning platform that may be worth a look! As the name suggests, this website is all about teaching and learning specific skills, whether painting, coding, making a website, quilting, or more.

You can read our Skillshare review here.

Skillshare offers tons of lessons on various skills, especially in creative and artistic fields, but also in entrepreneurship, freelancing, and lifestyle.

The classes are generally shorter and quicker to work through than Great Courses. An entire class, for instance, might comprise five or six short lessons adding up to one hour of total content.

So I’d suggest trying Skillshare if you want to cultivate your creative hobbies, learn basic tech skills like building a WordPress blog, or explore the possibility of starting your own business. But head for The Great Courses if you want to explore a topic in greater depth or if your interests are more academic.

Conclusion: Is The Great Courses worth it?

When I graduated from college, I felt a pang of regret for all the courses I’ll never take: that awesome class on medieval Japan that never fit my schedule, that philosophy seminar I never got around to, that introductory astronomy course I’d been curious about but never enrolled in.

The Great Courses is a fantastic solution for those kinds of regrets—No matter where we are in life, we never have to stop learning.

Which Great Course looks most interesting to you?



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Amelia Kennedy

Amelia Kennedy

Amelia Kennedy is a PhD candidate in the History Department at Yale University

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