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Testing times

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To give insights into failure and success that may be a source of encouragement for students preparing for exams.

Preparation and materials

  • As the subject of exams can be a source of stress for so many students, it helps to use a little humour, as has been applied in the ‘Assembly’ text given below.
  • Prepare images of the exam questions in 'The secret of failure' section in the ‘Assembly’ below and have the means to display them at the appropriate point during the assembly (optional).
  • You can ask one or more students to read out the quotations (optional).
  • For the ‘Time for reflection’ section, choose one or more prayers from the Celtic tradition. They are particularly valuable because of the way in which strength, guidance, blessing and God's presence are sought in all the ordinary situations of life. Choose from examples such as 'Journeying', 'House Blessings' and 'Breaking New Land' in The Edge of Glory: Prayers in the Celtic tradition by David Adams, who is Vicar of Holy Island (SPCK, 2011).
  • Have available the song 'Under pressure' by Queen and the means to play it at the end of the assembly.



  1. Today’s assembly is about exams. ‘About exams?’ you might be thinking. ‘It's bad enough having teachers go on about exams every lesson without having an assembly on the subject!’

    Perhaps it's all part of a great conspiracy, that the exam boards spend their time plotting. You can just hear them saying, 'What are potentially the most enjoyable years of their lives, when they have lots of energy and not too much responsibility? From the ages of about 11 to 21? What is the nicest time of year to be out enjoying yourself? Round about June? Right, that's where we'll put them. Oh, yes, and if they are really important exams, let's wait a couple of months before we give them the results, so we can spoil the middle of their summer holidays as well.'

    Then we thought, 'What's the one time of day when you don't have to think about exams at this time of year? Assembly. Right, then let's talk about exams  . . .'

    In fairness, however, we would probably all agree that exams are important and so it's not a bad idea to think about them.

  2. Testing – testing things and people (ourselves included) – is a natural part of life. Let's face it, if we have something new, whether it's a bike or a new pair of loudspeakers or something for the computer, we soon want to try it out to find out the most it can do. If it's a video game, trying it out also means testing ourselves and seeing how good we are at it. So, in certain circumstances, we like putting things and ourselves to the test.

    Here reference could be made to God's inclination to test his chosen people when they are 'new':

    – Adam and Eve  – see Genesis 3
    – the people of Israel in the wilderness – see Deuteronomy 8.15–16: 'who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid waste-land with poisonous snakes and scorpions. He made water flow for you from flint rock, and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know, to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good' (NRSV; there are some interesting ideas in that quotation – note the last two phrases)
    – Jesus at the beginning of his ministry
    – Peter.

    In general, though, we do not like examinations. We are afraid of what they will show. Like when we have dental examinations, we fear the worst and would rather not have them. Also, we don't like the way that, however much we may have learned, examiners seem to ask us about precisely those things we thought weren't going to come up this year!

  3. Whether we like it or not, though, testing times are going to happen, so here are two ideas to consider: one we might call 'the secret of success' and the other  – if we dare mention the word  –  'the secret of failure'.

    The secret of success

    There isn't, of course, just one single secret of success (apart from the obvious one: doing a lot more work a lot earlier!) There is, however, an important truth that can be very helpful and energizing if we manage to put it into practice.

    It's easy to feel discouraged because we are overwhelmed by what still has to be done. We do some very peculiar things when we think that we have more to do than we can cope with. We do nothing. We keep switching from one thing to another. We come up with very good reasons for putting things off, such as 'we can't start anything until we have tidied up'  . . . 

    In this situation, the best thing to do is to give ourselves the satisfaction of finishing something. It can be something small, something that has to be done anyway. Having the clutter of lots of unfinished jobs drains away the energy to tackle any of them. Finishing just one thing, though, gives us a burst of energy, a feeling of being in control, a sense of beginning and ending that clears the head and refreshes the mind, rather than having the tangled feeling of getting nowhere. Try it and you will see that it is true.

    Brian Williams, in a booklet called Managing to Care, has an excellent section on the value of completing something and quotes a simple example: 

    That good feeling when you have posted the perhaps long-overdue letter. The sound of the letter dropping into the box brings a great sense of relief. 

    We can apply this insight to our exam preparation. Then we can feel in control and that we are actually getting somewhere.

    On the theme of work and examinations, one or more traditional Chinese proverbs may be helpful, such as these.

    Do today's work, today.

    The plan of the day is made in the morning.

    Examinations are a deadly struggle in a thorny enclosure.

    He who asks is a fool for five minutes but he who does not ask remains a fool forever.

    Confucius said:

    I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.

    This is from the Tao Te Ching, written in about 500 BC:

    Should you want to achieve greatness, you will need to master the small things of which it is made; should you want to understand complexity, you must see its simple contents. Then that which is great will be small, that which is complex, simple. Effort will vanish and everything will arrange itself into order. The wise see no problem as big.

    The secret of failure

    (Note In what follows, failure does not simply mean falling below the pass grade, but to any falling short in terms of what we believe is expected of us, our potential.)

    No one is suggesting that failure is a good idea or we should give up when things get difficult, but we do have to accept, a certain amount of failure is an inevitable part of our growth as people – remember the words from Deuteronomy 8.16 (NRSV): 'to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good'. 

    We can never have total control over our lives, our strengths and our weaknesses. We are good at some things and less good at others. Other people are better than us at some things and at some things we are better than them. We need to learn this and to be happy with it. 

    To accept the possibility of failure is not itself a recipe for failure; it can be a step towards greater success. Excessive fear of failure can cause people to work less in order to lower people's expectations. It can also cause the deadlock that we considered earlier.

    Also, it is important to remember that failure is not the end. Jesus' disciples – particularly Peter – knew that. Consider how they would get on if they had to answer the following questions in an 'examination'. 

    If you prepared the following questions to display, show them now. 

    Question 1: Your teacher, who taught about love and pacifism, is threatened by his opponents. Do you:

    (a) stand by him?
    (b) lash out with your sword?
    (c) run away?

    Question 2: If you were accused of being a disciple of Jesus, but knew that it was dangerous to say so, would you:

    (a) admit it and take the consequences?
    (b) lie and deny that you were a disciple?
    (c) make sure that you were not around to be asked in the first place?

    Question 3: If you had another chance to act in the situation described in Question 2, would you:

    (a) take the opportunity to proudly say that you follow Jesus?
    (b) deny knowing him again?
    (c) get angry and start swearing?

    Jesus was a good teacher, but he could not magically remove all the challenges and pitfalls from his disciples' lives. In these particular 'testing times' Jesus' disciples achieved a 0 per cent pass rate, but their failure led to a new beginning. These same people went on to change the face of the world.

  4.  To sum up, none of us should ever seek failure, but it may well happen so neither should we lose sight of the new possibilities that can lie beyond it, making us better and stronger people. 

Time for reflection

Pray the chosen prayer or prayers (see ‘Preparation and materials’ above).

Follow-up activity

  1. Discuss what motivates and demotivates us. What energizes us and what holds us back? What can we do about it? Work out 'ten tips' together to help people facing testing times.

  2. Find out more about the ideas in the Tao Te Ching and the wisdom of Confucius. The Little Book of Chinese Proverbs, compiled by Jonathan Clements, (Paragon Plus, 1999), is a useful starting point.

  3. Make a collection/display of 'work blessings' and 'exam blessings' written by the students.

  4. Discuss what helps when we feel 'under pressure', such as music. Why?


'Under pressure' by Queen

Publication date: May 2014   (Vol.16 No.5)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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