Coursera - Introduction To Finance by Gautam Kaul

Wan Kong Yew

Wan Kong Yew is a Malaysian national living in Kota Kinabalu. His concept of consciousness, in the vein of Denett, Egan and Marvin Minsky leads him to be interested in Computer Science and Information Theory. He maintains 2 blogs, his personal one  - Call To Reason and the other being a gaming one  - Knights of the Cardboard Castle.

My own professional career is in accounting but I have never formally studied finance. As such the Introduction to Finance course conducted by Professor Gautam Kaul of the Ross Business School of the University of Michigan was a natural choice. It ran for 10 weeks, among the longest of any course offered on the Coursera platform.

This course attracted a high number of enrollments not only because there is a dearth of similar courses on Coursera (compared to the number of computer science subjects for example) but also because it is one of the few to offer a certificate that many felt is monetizable.
Professor KaulStructurally, the course is similar to other offerings in that it consists of a week’s worth of video lectures that were accompanied by a quiz. A final examination was conducted at the end of the course.
To obtain the certificate, students needed to score at least 70 marks in at least five out of the nine total quizzes and at least 70 marks in the final exam. The system was set up to allow only two attempts for each of the quizzes and the final exam. The exam itself was a timed one and limited to 100 minutes.
The topics covered are as follows:
  • Time Value of Money
  • Decision Criteria & Cash Flow Estimation
  • Bonds
  • Stocks
  • Risk & Return
One of the distinguishing characteristics of this class is that Professor’s Kaul’s lectures consist of a high proportion of what I would call conversational fluff. That is, the professor spends a lot of time talking about himself, his love of finance and anecdotes to amuse the student. He also repeatedly exhorts students to take time to absorb the material and to take breaks between videos.

While this is endearing at first, it gets tiresome as the course goes on and gets downright annoying when you need to rapidly scan through the videos to check on a point that you may have missed. The problem is exacerbated by the almost complete lack of supplementary studying materials. The course provides PDF downloads of a statistics overview, a summary of finance formulas and a template of a company’s cashflows, but the professor encourages students to take their own lectures so he doesn’t provide downloads of the slides and examples he uses in his lectures.

To top it all off, the professor adopts a pedantic tone in his lectures and takes a lot of time to work through even very simple and obvious problems. However the difficulty of the questions in the weekly quizzes is a quantum leap in complexity compared to those covered in the actual lectures. The official forums are full of complaints about how the lectures only covers easy material and how unexpectedly difficult the quizzes are compared to the content of the lectures.

An example question

This is not to say that Kaul is a bad professor. On the contrary, his love of finance is infectious and it is evident that his priority is to train students to adopt a financial way of thinking rather than to teach any specific set of formulas which will necessarily be overly rigid. Students are encouraged to think for themselves about why something makes financial sense rather than apply formulas by rote and he expects students to go beyond his lectures to look up information for themselves.

However, I would hazard that while this method might work great in a traditional university setting, in which students are physically present and able to discuss things with each other readily and in which the professor and his assistants are available to answer questions during office hours, it does not work well in the context of a MOOC (massively open online course). A MOOC simply needs to more structured and more self-contained than this.

Worst of all is that throughout the ten weeks of the course I have never seen the professor, nor any teaching assistant, nor any Coursera staff member, intervene in any way in the official forums. This caused the forums to rapidly degenerate into a free-for-all with the most poisonous atmosphere of any Coursera forum I’ve ever seen.
The forums were a complete and un-navigable mess with multiple redundant topics. Students at first tentatively opened topics to discuss quiz questions but as it became clear that the forums were not policed at all, it quickly became a place to get the correct answers. Students would openly hold off on submitting quizzes until the last moment in order to wait for best consensus of what the best answers should be. It makes a complete mockery of the Honor Code and the value of the promised certificate.

While I can say that I certainly learned a great deal from this course, I find it impossible to recommend it because of the numerous flaws I have outlined here. I think the biggest mistake from the beginning was offering a certificate at all since it is clear many students enrolled just for that purpose and were willing to do anything to get the right answers, spoiling the forum for useful discussion in the process.

I also think that it is pointless to implement official forums and then ignore it completely. If you’re going to have a forum, you need someone to police it and someone to respond to the most pressing questions as deemed by the community. In the absence of any official moderation, the forums became a battleground between blatant cheaters and self-appointed threadcops.

So while I believe that the Coursera needs more courses like this to expand its stable of subjects beyond computer science, the present one is too flawed to be rerun in its current state and needs urgent fixing.


  1. I can't agree more. It was very hard just browsing through the videos with all the inspirational banter about Finance. It was attractive at first but later it became boring.

  2. Just wanted to add a quick note that I didn't drop out. I stuck with it all the way to the end and did more than well enough to earn the certificate (which still hasn't materialized yet). But the problems in this course are very evident.

    1. Nice dude... I quit in between. Couldn't manage the other courses along with this course's long videos

  3. What are the contents that are to be mentioned in the Finance
    are listed here.Very nice one.The introduction is the key concept in this!

    1. Yep, that is the title right - Introduction To Finance. :)

  4. It has been the worst course I have ever taken and I have taken a lot of courses. I didn't take the final because after nine weeks and some how passing all the assignments I'm still lost. I could have done a better learning on my own, but I'm not a quitter so I stuck it out until the end. I learned one important thing about this course " The gains don't out weight the pains " Save your time and invest it another course.

    1. Thanks for your take on the course, it is sad that this course didn't hit it off as it looked very promising in the beginning.

  5. I'm a little late to find this article.
    Here I am, from 2015, at the end of the 8th iteration of this course. I'll watch last week's videos in a few minutes and attempt the final.
    The situation of the course hasn't changed. It is exactly as you described in 2012...
    - Faulty, long, boring videos are still there. I try to watch them in increased speed even if I'm not a native english speaker.
    - Fuzzy exam questions are still there.
    - Question's answers are in the forums...
    - No exercice material before assignments "because it is veeeery difficult to prepare new questions"...
    I didn't want to be a quitter and had a genuine interest in the topic, that's why I'm here at the end. But I'm suffering since week 2.
    It's the worst MOOC that I've taken so far, and I've seen and completed quite a few...
    Ok, when I'll finish the task at hand I'll get rid of this burden and focus on my other MOOC's...
    I hope more people will see your article before enrolling another iteration of this course.


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