About Working Memory and Testing

Cognition is the word used to describe all the mental processes happening in our brains. Cognition relies on working memory, which is the memory we are using when we are solving problems or performing tasks.

Testers, for example, often rely on working memory to keep track of what we are doing and the observations we are making while we test.

Working memory is fallible. You will probably have experienced going to the fridge to check something, yet when you get there, you find that you have forgotten what you were lookoing for. It usually helps returning to the place where you first thought about it, but sometimes it’s gone completely. It can be quite frustrating!

Adults can usually hold up to five things in working memory at the same time over a time span of several minutes. Small children can only hold one. A friend of mine, who used to work in a nursery, told me about a small boy, who had just learnt to walk. He was good at it, but when someone called his name, he fell on his behind. Every time! It’s was quite cute, she said.

Some people have very poor working memory. My 13 year old son Aksel has Asperger Syndrome and a severe attention deficit disorder (ADD). His working memory is very poor. In school, he usually looses focus on what he is doing after less than a minute, unless something or someone is helping him. By using a lot of mental energy, he can keep focusing over about 10 minutes, but it exhausts him and he has to take a break afterwards.

Yet, he can build the most fantastic Lego creations, particularly on the computer, and be concentrated about it for several hours. He is also excellent in a go cart, where he can stay 100% focused for more than 30 minutes – and is still completely relaxed afterwards. I’m usually exhausted after just 10 minutes!

So what’s the difference?

The difference, I beleive, is that the Lego creation and the go cart isn’t loading his working memory: He does not have to remember what he is doing as it’s in the context. The Lego building application is even helping him keeping all the bricks in order: He doesn’t have to focus on looking for that missing brick, but can quickly browse for any brick without loosing focus on the thing he is building.

At school, Aksel and his teachers are working hard to find strategies for off loading his working memory.

Aksel and I share a lot of genes, and though my working memory is far better than his, it isn’t quite as good as I would like it to be. I’ve learnt myself a few strategies to overcome it, and it’s usually not any big problem, though.

But since testing, and in particular explorative testing, is very demanding on working memory, I sometimes feel working memory impaired and I have developed a few strategies for myself to overcome it.

Test scripting is one of those strategies: Scripts are working memory aids for me.

Scripting by mind maps, however, doesn’t work well for me. The linear script is probably easier to navigate for me. (I love mind maps for taking notes and for manuscripts when I’m speaking, though.)

Scrips are also excellent providers of a ”safe home” when I’m diverting off to explore something: I don’t have to worry about forgetting what I was doing. I usually don’t even have take notes, which is very good, since note taking is something I’m not very good at (though, with discipline, I have improved over the years).

Developing strategies to assist your working memory can a good thing for anyone, even if you have excellent working memory, but there’s no one solution that works for everyone: Some like scripts, some hate them.

Experiment and stick with things you find work for you: Handwritten notes, mind maps, scripts, drawings. And if you are in the mood, try to use your body: Most of our brain cells are allocated to interacting with our muscles and senses, and they can work for you too: Count with your fingers, move yourself (and your laptop) around, talk to yourself about what you’re doing, etc.

In case you want to learn more about the concept of working memory, I can recommend the following book. It’s about working memory in children (for education), but the concept is the same for everyone:

Working Memory and Learning: A Practical Guide for Teachers

3 thoughts on “About Working Memory and Testing

  1. You speak of scripts, but you may as well have spoken about video (I video all my testing with a Samsung solid state videocam), or notetaking, or working with another tester (paired exploratory testing).

    This sounds like what I call “soft-scripted” testing, wherein the tester is in full control of the script. The becomes literally a guideline.

    Another book that may help: Things That Make Us Smart

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