Ruby Science

Single Table Inheritance (STI)

Using subclasses is a common method of achieving reuse in object-oriented software. Rails provides a mechanism for storing instances of different classes in the same table, called Single Table Inheritance. Rails takes care of most of the details by writing the class’s name to the type column and instantiating the correct class when results come back from the database.

Inheritance has its own pitfalls (see composition over inheritance) and STI introduces a few new gotchas that may compel you to consider an alternate solution.


  • You need to change from one subclass to another.
  • Behavior is shared among some subclasses but not others.
  • One subclass is a fusion of one or more other subclasses.


This method on Question changes the question to a new type. Any necessary attributes for the new subclass are provided to the attributes method.

# app/models/question.rb
def switch_to(type, new_attributes)
  attributes = self.attributes.merge(new_attributes)
  new_question ='id', 'type')) = id

    Question.transaction do
  rescue ActiveRecord::RecordInvalid


This transition is difficult for a number of reasons:

  • You need to worry about common Question validations.
  • You need to make sure validations for the old subclass are not used.
  • You need to make sure validations for the new subclass are used.
  • You need to delete data from the old subclass, including associations.
  • You need to support data from the new subclass.
  • Common attributes need to remain the same.

The implementation achieves all these requirements, but is awkward:

  • You can’t actually change the class of an instance in Ruby, so you need to return the instance of the new class.
  • The implementation requires deleting and creating records, but part of the transaction (destroy) must execute before you can validate the new instance. This results in control flow using exceptions.
  • The STI abstraction leaks into the model, because it needs to understand that it has a type column. STI models normally don’t need to understand that they’re implemented using STI.
  • It’s hard to understand why this method is implemented the way it is, so other developers fixing bugs or refactoring in the future will have a hard time navigating it.


  • If you’re using STI to reuse common behavior, use replace subclasses with strategies to switch to a composition-based model.
  • If you’re using STI so that you can easily refer to several different classes in the same table, switch to using a polymorphic association instead.


By following composition over inheritance, you’ll use STI as a solution less often.

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