[unit-testing] How do I test a private function or a class that has private methods, fields or inner classes?



14 Answers

The best way to test a private method is via another public method. If this cannot be done, then one of the following conditions is true:

  1. The private method is dead code
  2. There is a design smell near the class that you are testing
  3. The method that you are trying to test should not be private
Question

How do I unit test (using xUnit) a class that has internal private methods, fields or nested classes? Or a function that is made private by having internal linkage (static in C/C++) or is in a private (anonymous) namespace?

It seems bad to change the access modifier for a method or function just to be able to run a test.




For Java I'd use reflection, since I don't like the idea of changing the access to a package on the declared method just for the sake of testing. However, I usually just test the public methods which should also ensure the private methods are working correctly.

you can't use reflection to get private methods from outside the owner class, the private modifier affects reflection also

This is not true. You most certainly can, as mentioned in Cem Catikkas's answer.




The private methods are called by a public method, so the inputs to your public methods should also test private methods that are called by those public methods. When a public method fails, then that could be a failure in the private method.




Generally a unit test is intended to exercise the public interface of a class or unit. Therefore, private methods are implementation detail that you would not expect to test explicitly.




Testing private methods breaks the encapsulation of your class because every time you change the internal implementation you break client code (in this case, the tests).

So don't test private methods.




I tend not to test private methods. There lies madness. Personally, I believe you should only test your publicly exposed interfaces (and that includes protected and internal methods).




I have used reflection to do this for Java in the past, and in my opinion it was a big mistake.

Strictly speaking, you should not be writing unit tests that directly test private methods. What you should be testing is the public contract that the class has with other objects; you should never directly test an object's internals. If another developer wants to make a small internal change to the class, which doesn't affect the classes public contract, he/she then has to modify your reflection based test to ensure that it works. If you do this repeatedly throughout a project, unit tests then stop being a useful measurement of code health, and start to become a hindrance to development, and an annoyance to the development team.

What I recommend doing instead is using a code coverage tool such as Cobertura, to ensure that the unit tests you write provide decent coverage of the code in private methods. That way, you indirectly test what the private methods are doing, and maintain a higher level of agility.




Today, I pushed a Java library to help testing private methods and fields. It has been designed with Android in mind, but it can really be used for any Java project.

If you got some code with private methods or fields or constructors, you can use BoundBox. It does exactly what you are looking for. Here below is an example of a test that accesses two private fields of an Android activity to test it:

@UiThreadTest
public void testCompute() {

    // Given
    boundBoxOfMainActivity = new BoundBoxOfMainActivity(getActivity());

    // When
    boundBoxOfMainActivity.boundBox_getButtonMain().performClick();

    // Then
    assertEquals("42", boundBoxOfMainActivity.boundBox_getTextViewMain().getText());
}

BoundBox makes it easy to test private/protected fields, methods and constructors. You can even access stuff that is hidden by inheritance. Indeed, BoundBox breaks encapsulation. It will give you access to all that through reflection, BUT everything is checked at compile time.

It is ideal for testing some legacy code. Use it carefully. ;)

https://github.com/stephanenicolas/boundbox




First, I'll throw this question out: Why do your private members need isolated testing? Are they that complex, providing such complicated behaviors as to require testing apart from the public surface? It's unit testing, not 'line-of-code' testing. Don't sweat the small stuff.

If they are that big, big enough that these private members are each a 'unit' large in complexity -- consider refactoring such private members out of this class.

If refactoring is inappropriate or infeasible, can you use the strategy pattern to replace access to these private member functions / member classes when under unit test? Under unit test, the strategy would provide added validation, but in release builds it would be simple passthrough.




A private method is only to be accessed within the same class. So there is no way to test a “private” method of a target class from any test class. A way out is that you can perform unit testing manually or can change your method from “private” to “protected”.

And then a protected method can only be accessed within the same package where the class is defined. So, testing a protected method of a target class means we need to define your test class in the same package as the target class.

If all the above does not suits your requirement, use the reflection way to access the private method.




If you're trying to test existing code that you're reluctant or unable to change, reflection is a good choice.

If the class's design is still flexible, and you've got a complicated private method that you'd like to test separately, I suggest you pull it out into a separate class and test that class separately. This doesn't have to change the public interface of the original class; it can internally create an instance of the helper class and call the helper method.

If you want to test difficult error conditions coming from the helper method, you can go a step further. Extract an interface from the helper class, add a public getter and setter to the original class to inject the helper class (used through its interface), and then inject a mock version of the helper class into the original class to test how the original class responds to exceptions from the helper. This approach is also helpful if you want to test the original class without also testing the helper class.




In the Spring Framework you can test private methods using this method:

ReflectionTestUtils.invokeMethod()

For example:

ReflectionTestUtils.invokeMethod(TestClazz, "createTest", "input data");



Private methods are consumed by public ones. Otherwise, they're dead code. That's why you test the public method, asserting the expected results of the public method and thereby, the private methods it consumes.

Testing private methods should be tested by debugging before running your unit tests on public methods.

They may also be debugged using test-driven development, debugging your unit tests until all your assertions are met.

I personally believe it is better to create classes using TDD; creating the public method stubs, then generating unit tests with all the assertions defined in advance, so the expected outcome of the method is determined before you code it. This way, you don't go down the wrong path of making the unit test assertions fit the results. Your class is then robust and meets requirements when all your unit tests pass.




As many above have suggested, a good way is to test them via your public interfaces.

If you do this, it's a good idea to use a code coverage tool (like Emma) to see if your private methods are in fact being executed from your tests.




Another approach I have used is to change a private method to package private or protected then complement it with the @VisibleForTesting annotation of the Google Guava library.

This will tell anybody using this method to take caution and not access it directly even in a package. Also a test class need not be in same package physically, but in the same package under the test folder.

For example, if a method to be tested is in src/main/java/mypackage/MyClass.java then your test call should be placed in src/test/java/mypackage/MyClassTest.java. That way, you got access to the test method in your test class.




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