the great courses

I’d never heard of The Great Courses (that I know of, anyway) until we got an ad for it in the mail. I glanced at it briefly, chalked it up as junk and made to throw it out — but my husband stopped me.

Have you looked at it? He asked. It could be worthwhile. 

So I gave the glossy magazine a once-over, read about the discount — 25 dollars a course for 5 courses — and then thought, Why not? It might be fun and if not, it wouldn’t be too much money down the drain. 

I told the kids to pick out the classes that interested them, and then we all sat down together and chose the ones with the greatest overlap: Spanish I, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Native Peoples of North America, Western Civilizations I, and Building a Better Vocabulary. (And then we opted to pay ten dollars more for each class to get the version that came with a DVD.) 

I had my reservations. You can learn just about anything online (via YouTube and Khan Academy, etc) and there’s the public library and all sorts of fun TED talks and podcasts. Would this be any better than all that free stuff? 

My older daughter took the Molecular Biology DVD with her up to Massachusetts, but my younger son sneaked in a few lessons before she left. He was glued to them — completely absorbed — and when I asked if he was understanding any of it, he laughed sheepishly and said, “Some.” (And then one night at supper he regaled us with a long tale of science-y information, the details of which I no longer recall except for the fact that he was so thoroughly excited about it that he was bubbling over.)

Biology, in her new digs.

The two younger kids are watching the Western Civilization lectures with my husband. My daughter takes notes (it helps her focus and retain), and my husband hits pause every now and then to summarize or elaborate or review, or he might pull out the atlas to help them get their bearings. But mostly they just watch. My husband says the class is good — comprehensive, engaging, and informative.

I’m doing the Spanish DVD with the two younger kids. Each lesson — there are thirty in all — takes us about four sessions (or days) to complete, and we break them down like so: 

  • The lectures: we watch them together, with me hitting pause frequently to give them time to formulate answers or repeat phrases. 
  • Speaking exercises: I hit pause constantly so it takes awhile. 
  • Workbook: we photocopy the lessons and they each work their way through the written work, after which I check it and have them read everything out loud. 
  • Practice, above and beyond (but necessary): I make flashcards and randomly yell at them to conjugate “ser,” or to rattle off the pronouns, or to tell me the present tense ending to -ar verbs. 

It’s a lot of information, and excellently presented — like, really excellent (and I’m learning/relearning an awful lot) — but I do wonder what it’d be like to try to absorb all of it without any background in Spanish. Even though my kids’ knowledge of the language feels minimal, thanks to their months in Guatemala and Puerto Rico, they’re already familiar with the sounds and cadence, which has gotta be a big help. Plus, it helps that I know enough Spanish to be able to coach and correct. In any case, the kids are absorbing a tremendous amount of Spanish in a way that will stick with them better than any other language learning program I’ve seen (not counting their immersion experiences, of course). 

Update: We just got a letter from The Great Courses with another discount (pricier than the first but it applies to all the courses, not just a select few) and my husband is urging me to buy more. Even though I like that the kids are being exposed to college-level lectures, that the material, like any college course, digs in deep enough to get a good taste for the subject matter, and that I don’t have to source the content (but can supplement as much as I want), I probably won’t. We’ve hardly made a dent in the courses we’ve already purchased, and I don’t want to take on too much right at the start and then stall out. 

But I am tempted. There is that mental math course that my younger son wants to try…

This same time, years previous: collard greens, Thursday thoughts, Jonathan’s jerky, the quotidian (2.16.15), buses, boats, and trucks, oh my!, cornmeal blueberry scones, just stuff.


  • Karin

    That sounds interesting. Too bad my homeschool boy is off at college now. Maybe I’ll see if they have anything I would like to learn.

  • Ervin Stutzman

    Bonita and I have done a number of the Great Courses together, and I’ve done a number alone. A terrific resource. I only buy the courses when they’re on deep sale.

  • Ann Caddy

    We used the Great Courses in our homeschool a lot. The profs just make the subjects come alive so much more than textbooks, and that was especially true for my child who finds reading difficult. Just a heads up–if you decide to buy a class, wait until it goes on sale. All the courses go on deep sale eventually, usually within a 6 month period. A few years ago we signed up for Great Courses Plus: $15/month or $150/year (if you pay annually rather than monthly) allows you to stream all the courses. My youngest graduated nearly two years ago, but we keep the membership because I enjoy it so much.

    One of our favorite homeschool memories was inviting another family over each week to watch a lesson from the course, “Food: A Cultural Culinary History” together. After the lesson, we cooked the recipe/used the technique (included in the course booklet, which you can download for free as a pdf) together. We had a blast cooking outside on a rock like ancient peoples, grinding corn by hand, roasting meat on a spit and eating it with our hands like the Goths. The kids still talk about how much fun it was. The American History courses for high schoolers are also really entertaining.

    I think the Great Courses are a fabulous resource. Lots of general life topics too–crafting, exercise, cooking, etc. So glad you discovered them!

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