6.4. Accessor Methods

Since the instance variables in a class are usually marked as private to the class, programmers provide public methods that allow safe access to the instance variable values in a class. Accessor methods, also called get methods or getters, allow a way to get the value of each instance variable from outside of the class. In the next lesson, we will see mutator methods, also called set methods or setters, that allow a way to change the values of the instance variables. In Unit 2, we also used set/get methods with the Turtle class to get the Turtle object’s width, height, xPosition, etc. or to change them.

Java programmers write get methods for each instance variable that look like the following. Notice that the get method returns the instance variable’s value and it has a return type that is the same type as the variable that it is returning.

 class ExampleTemplate {

   //Instance variable declaration
   private typeOfVar varName;

   // Accessor (getter) method template
   public typeOfVar getVarName()
      return varName;


Here’s an example of an accessor method called getName() for the Student class which also demonstrates how to call getName() using a Student object.

Notice the signature does not include the keyword static. A static method does not have access to instance variables since it is not called on an object. A non-static method on the other hand must be called with an object, and therefore can access the instance variables.

class Student {

  //Instance variable name
  private String name;

  /** getName() example
   *  @return name */
  public String getName()
     return name;

  public static void main(String[] args)
     // To call a get method, use objectName.getVarName()
     Student s = new Student();
     System.out.println("Name: " + s.getName() );


Some common errors with methods that return values are:

  • Forgetting a return type like int before the method name.

  • Forgetting to use the return keyword to return a value at the end of the method.

  • Forgetting to do something with the value returned from a method (like saving it into a variable or printing it out).

Try the following code. Note that this active code window has 2 classes! The main method is in a separate Tester or Driver class. It does not have access to the private instance variables in the other Student class. Note that when you use multiple classes in an IDE, you usually put them in separate files, and you give the files the same name as the public class in them. In active code and IDEs, you can put 2 classes in 1 file, as demonstrated here, but only 1 of them can be public and have a main method in it. You can also view the fixed code in the Java visualizer.

coding exercise Coding Exercise

Try the following code. Note that it has a bug! It tries to access the private instance variable email from outside the class Student. Change the main method in Tester class so that it uses the appropriate public accessor method (get method) to access the email value instead.

There is a subtle difference in methods that return primitive types versus reference/object types. If the method is returning a primitive type like int, it returns a copy of the value. This is called return by value. This means the original value is not changed and it is a safe way to access the instance variables.

However, object variables really hold a reference to the object in memory. This is not the actual value, but its address in memory. So, if the method is returning an object like String, Java returns a copy of the object reference, not the value itself. Java was especially designed this way because objects tend to be large and we want to avoid copying large objects, so we just pass around references to the objects (their addresses in memory). So, when we call getName(), we actually get back a reference to the String for the name in memory.

6.4.1. toString()

Another common method that returns a value is the toString() method which returns a String description of the instance variables of the object.

This method is called automatically to try to convert an object to a String when it is needed, for example in a print statement.

Here is the Student class again, but this time with a toString() method. Note that when we call System.out.println(s1); it will automatically call the toString() method to cast the object into a String. The toString() method will return a String that is then printed out. Watch how the control moves to the toString() method and then comes back to main in the Java visualizer or by using the Code Lens button.

See the toString() method in action.

6.4.2. groupwork Programming Challenge : Class Pet

You’ve been hired to create a software system for the Awesome Animal Clinic! They would like to keep track of their animal patients. Here are some attributes of the pets that they would like to track:

  • Name

  • Age

  • Weight

  • Type (dog, cat, lizard, etc.)

  • Breed

  1. Create a class that keeps track of the attributes above for pet records at the animal clinic. Decide what instance variables are needed and their data types. Make sure you use int, double, and String data types. Make the instance variables private.

  2. Create 2 constructors, one with no parameters and one with many parameters to initialize all the instance variables.

  3. Create Accessor (get) methods for each of the instance variables.

  4. Create a toString() method that returns all the information in a pet record.

  5. In the main method below, create 3 pet objects and call their constructors, accessor methods, and toString methods to test all of your methods.

  6. Make sure you use good commenting!

Create a Pet class that keeps track of the name, age, weight, type of animal, and breed for records at an animal clinic.

6.4.3. Practice

6.4.4. Summary

  • An accessor method allows other objects to obtain the value of instance variables or static variables.

  • A non-void method returns a single value. Its header includes the return type in place of the keyword void.

  • Accessor methods that return primitive types use “return by value” where a copy of the value is returned.

  • When the return expression is a reference to an object, a copy of that reference is returned, not a copy of the object.

  • The return keyword is used to return the flow of control to the point immediately following where the method or constructor was called.

  • The toString method is an overridden method that is included in classes to provide a description of a specific object. It generally includes what values are stored in the instance data of the object.

  • If System.out.print or System.out.println is passed an object, that object’s toString method is called, and the returned string is printed.

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