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SubSpec: Assert and Observation

When writing a test, we should make sure only to have one Assertion per test. The reasoning behind this constraint is simple. If we used multiple assertions and our first one fails, we are not able to retrieve the results from the other ones.



In this example, if the assertion on stack.IsEmpty() fails, we are unable to retrieve the results of the next two Assertions. We can see that our test consists of three parts:

  1. Arrange the System Under Test (SUT)
  2. Act on SUT
  3. Assert the SUT’s state has changed accordingly.

If we want to have one Assertions per test, we need to write three tests, duplicating the Arrange and Act for each test. As always, repetition is suboptimal, so let’s see what we can do about it.

SubSpecs’ core idea is that each test (we call them Specification) that you write consists of the above mentioned primitives.  Each primitive can be represented by an action and a corresponding description. Using fluent syntax, a SubSpec Specification for the above mentioned Scenario looks like this:

Each of the primitive test actions is represented by a description and a lambda statement.  The big difference to a traditional test is that SubSpec knows about these primitive actions and can compose them to generate three Tests from the above Specification, one for each Assertion. What it does under the hood is pretty much what you’d expect it to do: SubSpec repeats the Context and Do action for each Assertion and wraps it inside a single test. That’s the power of declarative tests!

This is one of the features SubSpec has supported since it’s beginning. But there’s one thing we can improve about the above example. We have got three Assertions in our above test, but only one of them is destructive. You guessed correct, it is the second one. By popping an element from the stack, it modifies the system under test. This is a more general problem. Although we should try to avoid this situation, sensing something in our  SUT cannot always be made side-effect free. (Anyone feels reminded of quantum physics? 😀 )

The first and third Assertion on the other hand are side effect free. If the Context and Do Action were possibly expensive (such as when involving an external resource), repeating them for each of our Isolated Assertions would be a waste of time. But tests need to be as fast as possible. What can we do about it?

Given the distinction between a destructive Assertion and a side effect-free Observation we can check against our SUT, we should split our Assert primitive accordingly. An Assertion is a destructive operation on our SUT, which therefore needs to be recreated for each Assertion we check. For an Observation on the other hand, the SUT can be shared. Let’s get back to our exmaple:

The Context and Do action are executed once for each Assertion (once in this case) and once for all Observations. Given the declarative nature of SubSpec, we can easily mix and match Observations and Assertions in one Specification and still get a single test for each. Pretty cool, isn’t it?

The distinction between Assert (verb) and Observation (noun) is intentional to highlight the difference between those two concepts.

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Categories: .NET, SubSpec, Testing
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