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The complexity of three assignment statements

Once I got into researching my book on C I was surprised at how few experiments had been run using professional software developers. I knew a number of people on the Association of C and C++ Users committee, in particular the then chair Francis Glassborow, and suggested that they ought to let me run an experiment at the 2003 ACCU conference. They agreed and I have been running an experiment every year since.

Before the 2003 conference I had never run an experiment that had people as subjects. I knew that if I wanted to obtain a meaningful result the number of factors that could vary had to be limited to as few as possible. I picked a topic which has probably been the subject of more experiments that any other topics, short term memory. The experimental design asked subjects to remember a list of three assignment statements (e.g., X = 5;), perform an unrelated task that was likely to occupy them for 10 seconds or so, and then recognize the variables they had previously seen within a list and recall the numeric value assigned to each variable.

I knew all about the factors that influenced memory performance for lists of words: word frequency, word-length, phonological similarity, how chunking was often used to help store/recall information and more. My variable names were carefully chosen to balance all of these effects and the information content of the three assignments required slightly more short term memory storage than subjects were likely to have.

The results showed none of the effects that I was expecting. Had I found evidence that a professional software developer’s brain really did operate differently than other peoples’ or was something wrong with my experiment? I tried again two years later (I ran a non-memory experiment the following year while I mulled over my failure) and this time a chance conversation with one of the subjects after the experiment uncovered one factor I had not controlled for.

Software developers are problem solvers (well at least the good ones are) and I had presented them with a problem; how to remember information that appeared to require more storage than available in their short term memories and accurately recall it shortly afterwards. The obvious solution was to reduce the amount of information that needed to be stored by simply remembering the first letter of every variable (which one of the effects I was controlling for had insured was unique) not the complete variable name.

I ran another experiment the following year and still did not obtain the expected results. What was I missing now? I don’t know and in 2008 I ran a non-memory based experiment. I still have no idea what techniques my subjects are using to remember information about three assignment statements that are preventing me getting the results I expect.

Perhaps those researchers out there that claim to understand the processes involved in comprehending a complete function definition can help me out by explaining the mental processes involved in remembering information about three assignment statements.

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