Extra Credit

Extra Credit

Boston College students who spent freshman year at Newton Campus might remember any number of things about the experience: relaxing on the Hardey Hall lawn, for example, or playing basketball in the quonset hut gym - or running for the Main Campus shuttle bus as it heads for Centre Street.

But how well do they remember the campus itself?

M. Jeanne Sholl (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
That is the question asked by Prof. M. Jeanne Sholl(Psychology), who finds BC's satellite campus 1.25 miles to the west an ideal means for her research on how people's spatial memories change over time.

For one of her projects, she and graduate assistant Stephanie Fraone tested undergraduates who were former Newton Campus residents on their ability to recall details about the campus lay-out.

"The freshman residence halls provide us with a subset of students who live on Newton Campus during their freshman year, but who don't return thereafter," said Sholl. "This allows us to study what happens to spatial memories of Newton Campus after the passage of a year or more of time."

In the experiment, Sholl had the students picture themselves standing with their back to the front entrance of Trinity Chapel, the approximate center of Newton Campus. Then they were asked to point in the direction where they believed various campus landmarks stood in relation to their imagined position. Sholl and Fraone measured the accuracy of the students' responses and compared them to those of current Newton Campus freshmen who were given the same test.

Sholl says she and Fraone were surprised to find that, while the former Newton Campus residents were not as precise in their knowledge of landmarks relative to one another a year later, this loss of precision did not increase over time. According to current psychological theory, Sholl says, the longer you retain a spatial memory without revisiting the location in question, the more likely that memory will degrade in terms of specific detail.

"Psychologists have found those memories of names and faces formed over a period of several years - people's memories of their high school classmates - stay intact for many, many years," said Sholl, who notes that project data is still being analyzed. "However, memories of names and faces formed over shorter periods of time - professors' memories of student names and faces formed over a 13-week semester - degrade relatively quickly over a three-year period.

"In this respect, spatial memories may be similar to over-learned memories of names and faces."

Names, faces and places aside, Sholl's project produced another unexpected result. Oft-cited complaints about Newton Campus's isolation from the rest of BC might convey the impression of a purgatory from which students eagerly await release. But finding former Newton Campus residents who shun their old freshman-year haunt proved more difficult than Sholl expected. Perhaps it's the University Chorale concerts in Trinity Chapel or all those games of Ultimate Frisbee on the lawn in back of Alumni House.

-Sean Smith


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