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Student: ex05

Setting up GitHub Actions

Part of a series of tutorial articles about a Student class.

Code examples referred to on this page can be found here:


In this example we introduce GitHub Actions as a way to automate running a suite of JUnit tests.

GitHub Actions is a platform for “continuous integration” of our code, i.e. automatically testing our entire code base after every commit.

In the top level of every GitHub repo, the developer can create a special directory called .github that contains files that configure special features of GitHub.

Under that .github directory, the developer can put files into a directory called workflows that define scripts that can be run when certain GitHub events occur. For now, we’l focus on a workflow that runs any time code is pushed to any branch of the repo.

As an example, we can define a script that will run all of the JUnit tests in the repo every time a push is made.

This is part of a strategy commonly used in professional software development organizations called Continuous Integration.

It’s called Continuous Integration because:

  • It’s Continuous: you do it as you push commits into your branch
  • It’s an Integration: you are looking at the impact of your changes not just on the parts of the code base you think you are impacting, but on the entire code base as an integral whole.

You can read more about CI systems here:

To set up GitHub Actions for any repo, we take two steps:

  • Create a directory called .github/workflows.
    • To create it, we can type mkdir -p .github/workflows
    • Note that because the directory name .github starts with a ., it will be a hidden directory on many systems.

      On Unix, you use ls -a to show hidden files/directories.

  • Into the directory .github/workflows, we put a file that specifies the actions to be taken, using a syntax called YAML (pronounced “Yam-el”; it rhymes with “Camel”)
    • .yml is the file extension for YAML files.
    • .yml syntax is used by many systems, not just GitHub Actions

Note that, at least for now, you are not required to learn the special syntax of the .yml files used for GitHub actions; we’ll provide the contents and modifications needed. We may learn little bits and pieces of it as needed. But if you want a reference for it, you can find one here:

Here is a .yml file that will run JUnit tests on a Java 11 Maven project. We’ll call it .github/workflows/maven.yml since it is a workflow for Maven.

name: Java CI

    runs-on: ubuntu-latest
      - uses: actions/checkout@v1
      - name: Set up JDK 11
        uses: actions/setup-java@v1
          java-version: 11.0.x
      - name: Build with Maven
        run: mvn test 

The directory structure should look like this:


With this in place, if we commit a change and put it to GitHub, we should see that our commit has either a yellow circle, green check or red X next to it, as illustrated by these three images:

Green check indicates all tests passed:


Yellow circle indicates tests are still running (no results yet):


Red X indicates either that at least one test failed, or the entire testing script failed in some way:


If you click on the green check, yellow circle, or red X, you’ll get a pop up with more information, and a link to the details.

That’s all we are going to cover this in this example. In the next example, we’ll add some plugins to our pom.xml and modify our script so that it can also perform test coverage, which is also known as code coverage.