Private tutoring, or shadow education, has become a widespread phenomenon globally. Its growth can be attributed to the expansion of cram schools offering live and video tutoring. This study critically analyses students' perceptions of video-recorded classes. Specifically, it problematises students' preference for video-recorded classes by exploring their reasons for enrolment and their perspective on the benefits and shortcomings of video tutoring in a Hong Kong cram school. It adopts an exploratory sequential mixed-methods approach. Data were collected through classroom observations, student interviews and questionnaire. The findings reveal that students chose video-recorded classes mainly because of their flexibility of timeslots and locations. A critical discussion of the findings unveils students' contradictory attitude towards the presence of tutors in classrooms, their preference for passive learning and anxiety about tutor–tutee interactions. This study contributes to the growing literature of shadow education and offers implications for potential policy change in the private tutoring context. Copyright © 2020 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.