Shane Vitarana more brain > blog.html

assert_difference Exposed

assert_difference is my favorite Rails test helper, and until a few weeks ago, was sitting in a helper class that I used to add to all my projects. It is now in Rails core. There were a few versions of it floating around, so it is good that we now have only one version to deal with.

What can you do with it?

One of the most common idioms I’ve run into in testing, is to count the number of records associated with a Model, create a new one, and make sure the count incremented by one. In the old days, we had to do this:

def test_should_create_user
  num_users = User.count
  user = create_user
  assert !user.new_record?, "#{user.errors.full_messages.to_sentence}"
  assert_equal num_users + 1, User.count

Now we can do:

def test_should_create_user
  assert_difference 'User.count' do
    user = create_user
    assert !user.new_record?, "#{user.errors.full_messages.to_sentence}"

We saved one line, and got rid of repeating User.count. assert_difference gets very close to my limit of too much magic, but I still like how it cleans up tests, especially if you use it with assert_no_difference as well. You aren’t forced to use it, just like you aren’t forced to scaffold.

How does it work?

Here is what the source looks like:

 # File vendor/rails/activesupport/lib/active_support/core_ext/test/difference.rb
22:       def assert_difference(expression, difference = 1, &block)
23:         expression_evaluation = lambda { eval(expression, block.binding) }
24:         original_value        =
25:         yield
26:         assert_equal original_value + difference,
27:       end

We pass in our expression 'User.count', the default difference of 1, and the block to assert_difference. We then evaluate the expression User.count and store it in a Proc object, since lambda converts a block to a Proc object. A Proc object allows us to store a chunk of code and evaluate it at a later time, while maintaining the context of its original definition. If we currently have 3 users, original\_value will have a value of 3 in line 24. Then we yield to the block and create the new user. Finally we will add 1 to the original\_value of 3 and re-evaluate the expression User.count by calling the Proc object. Since the new user was created, the User count is now 4 and the test will pass. Notice how eval is passed in the binding of the block. This causes the evaluated expression to run in the context of the block. I don’t think this makes a difference in this specific example, but it makes sense, since User.count is more associated with the block than the top-level binding of the test method.

Why are you telling me all this?

Of course you don’t need to know all of this to use assert_difference. I just thought it was a well written method that demonstrates practical use of Proc objects.


If you are using acts_as_authenticated or restful_authentication, you will have to go in and change your model unit test to use assert\_difference 'Model.count' do instead of assert\_difference Model, :count do. If you are working on a new project and going to use aaa, use this patch to fix your tests.