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Programmer, Interrupted
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Programmer, Interrupted

April 22, 2013 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next

Associative memory

Associative memory holds a set of nonconscious links between manifestations of co-occurring stimuli.

Developers commonly experience disorientation when navigating to unfamiliar code. The disorientation stems from associative memory failures that arise when a developer must recall information about the places of code they are viewing or what to view next. Researchers believe the lack of rich and stable environmental cues in interface elements, such as document tabs, prevent devs from recalling associative memories.

The presence of multiple modalities in a stimulus increases the ability to form an associative memory. In this sense, a modality refers to a distinct type of perception that is processed by distinct regions of the brain, such as auditory or visual pathways. Examples of different modalities and corresponding stimuli include: visual (error underline bars, highlighting code), lexical (name of file), spatial (position of scroll bar or tab), operational (edit/search/debug step action on file), and structural (logical position of file in hierarchy).

When multiple modalities are present in the same stimulus, more pathways are activated, thus increasing the chance of forming an associative memory. In contrast, a monotonous stimulus with a single modality is less likely to form an associative memory.

An associative link helps a programmer by situating information of multiple modalities with a program element; observations of developers suggest that they frequently rely on associations with environmental cues, such as tabs and scrollbars, for maintaining context during navigation. However, these cues are often insufficient: The act of navigation often disturbs the state of the cues, and the paucity of interface elements such as tabs, which often contain only a file name, starves associability. By improving navigating document tabs, which in default configurations are especially spartan, often showing just the name of the document, we could see increased recall from associative memory.

Two tabs adorned with cues of different modalities: such as error lines (visual) and edit icons (operational).  

Episodic memory

Episodic memory is the recollection of past events. Software developers continually encounter new learning experiences about their craft. Retaining and making use of such acquired knowledge requires that developers are able to recollect those experiences from their episodic memory.

When recalling from episodic memory, developers commonly experience failures that limit their ability to recall essential details or recollect the key events. For example, a developer may forget the changes they performed for a programming task, or forget details such as a blog post that was used for implementing part of the task.

A code narrative is an episodic memory aid that helps a developer recall contextual details and the history of programming activity. Different types of narratives can be supported; for example, a review mode for high-level recall of events and a share mode for publishing a coding task for others.

A timeline of programming activities can help you or your teammates remember how you did a task and the resources you used. Click for larger version.

For more on code narratives, check out this blog, which is shared and published semiautomatically via a code narrative. (Note that as of this writing, the blog hasn't been updated recently.) 

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