Cathryn Virginia

Halfway through winter break, while most students stay snug in bed, 17 undergraduates, representing all four years and most schools opt to go to this class and, more remarkable, stow their phones. Professor Karlin Luedtke walks in a few minutes later, as the students are sharing with one another about their week. 

Luedtke created this January Term class in 2004 for students who wanted help with the adjustment to the academic demands of UVA but didn’t qualify for invitation-only, semester-long remedial classes. This year, each member of the diverse group has a different reason for taking the two-week class, from fourth-year students seeking to improve critical-thinking skills for the workforce to first-years learning how to navigate textbook reading. 

“I emphasize that it is not your typical college class,” Luedtke says, underscoring that it’s more about the students’ development as learners than anything else.

Essey Abebe (Col ’20) decided to take the class for a GPA boost after a tough semester, but he says he will be leaving with much more.

“I don’t feel like she is teaching me how to do better in school,” Abebe says. “I feel like she’s teaching me how to progress more
in life.”

The first rule of the class—no technology—is to that end. “It’s a requirement that they sit down and ask the person next to them how they are doing,” Luedtke says. “They gain value from that alone.”

Luedtke also teaches critical thinking, reading strategies, study skills, public speaking and test taking. Acknowledging that a biology textbook differs from an English lit novel, she teaches for different disciplines. Some tips include starting small on big projects to ward off procrastination and learning how to pinpoint their motivations.

She begins with paradigms, though, because “you can’t assume that the way you’ve been doing things for successful outcomes will always have successful outcomes.”

A willingness to adapt to new situations—and openness to new strategies to address them—will benefit students in the long run, she says. Even if they struggle at first, that’s OK.

“I try to reaffirm to students that challenge is good … and failure does not equal stupid.”A week in, Abebe, the second-year, was noticing a change in his habits and mindset. And, as the class promised, he was learning to think in a new way.

When the class toured Polyface Farm outside of Staunton as part of the critical-thinking unit, they discussed the realities of food production with owner Joel Salatin, a notable food activist.

“It made me realize that just because someone is feeding you doesn’t mean they have integrity in feeding you,” Abebe says. “I thought, ‘What else am I not questioning?’ ”
That’s exactly what Luedtke is after.