CEWT #5 Theory Over Practice or Practice Over Theory?

The abstract for my CEWT talk was:

“I’ll be drawing on my experience learning to ride a unicycle and comparing it against that of teaching others to ride. You might think it’s all about the practice and I’ll be exploring this while posing such questions as ‘does size matter’. This talk won’t give you answers but will aim to make you think about how you learn and how that might not always be the best way.”

Like all talks at the Cambridge Exploratory Workshop on Testing (CEWT) mine was also aimed at generating discussion and asking questions. I’ve listed some of questions I posed during the presentation below.

Could observation be both theory and practice?

But if so does it require some understanding around the subject matter first?

Perhaps observing someone testing means that you gain more practical knowledge.

What about pairing, where it could be a mix of theory and practice via observation.

Does it help to know where you want to get to?

Does it help to know where you want to get to, or can it distract you, or make you less likely to change course?

How might knowing your destination affect the choices between theory and practice when applied to learning something new in testing?

I feel testing is evolving rapidly, so does having a destination hinder our choices. Narrow our field of vision.

Would having wider general theory and a narrower practical experience, focused on what you need now, make more sense for a destination when it has the possibility of changing?


Theory can be hard to put into context without that practical experience to help understand that theory.

For example Exploratory Testing is often hard for people to understand. Especially without doing any practice.

Why is that? What makes one testing activity harder to understand than another?

When teaching it is good to understand that goals can differ for people on the same subject matter.

Understanding someone’s goals related to testing might influence your decision to use practice or theory when teaching them.

For one person it could be the theory behind automation that would suffice while another might have a goal where more practical application is needed.

Taking Short Cuts

Do practical  shortcuts mean you miss out fundamental learning on the way?

Shortcuts can speed up the learning process but at what cost, and are we OK with it?

Can you bypass some of the learning that might come from practical testing by using theory more?

I’ve certainly observed testers who have been testing for years appear not as experienced as those relatively new to testing.

But what am I judging them on? Often it might be the theory they can quote.

Or perhaps we are now at a maturity in the testing profession where we are able to highlight shortcuts that don’t have any detrimental effect on learning?

Different Disciplines

Could the practice of one help the theory of another?

Could the practice of soak testing help you understand the theory of performance testing?

Could the theory of one help the practice of another?

Could understanding the theory of risk based testing help with security?

Importantly what makes the theory and practice the same between testing disciplines and what makes it different?

Just like unicycling, knowing the theories of the related disciplines isn’t going to help much if you have never ridden before, or it at least it won’t until you actually try and ride!


What keeps you motivated? The theory or practice? Perhaps it’s both?

Is it doing the thing?

Could it be seeing or observing the thing? Especially if you can’t yet do it?

Is it the deeper understanding of the testing theory that keeps you going?

Or perhaps it’s being able to help others practice what you have learnt

Is it a mixture?

Importantly how does it change over time?

What about motivation after you have learnt the first step on your journey. How is this different to motivation during the first step.

What keeps us testers going? Do we see our preferences of theory and practice change over time, and if so is it our choice or are we influenced by other factors?