Multiple temporal scales of landscapes and landforms

Marguerite Forest (Florida Gulf Coast University), Phil Stokes (University of Arizona), Steve Semken (Arizona State University)
Initial Publication Date: May 8, 2012 | Reviewed: January 19, 2015


This exercise provides students with a timescale and list of geomorphic landforms and processes. The activity requires that students utilize their knowledge of process-driving mechanisms to place landforms and processes on a timescale. Students will encounter a wide variety of landforms and will learn how different processes occur on vastly different timescales.

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Students in an upper-division undergraduate geology, physical geography, or environmental science course.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students should have a capacity to estimate numbers based on orders of magnitude. Students should also know terminology for basic landforms and landscapes.

How the activity is situated in the course

The activity is used at the beginning of a lecture as a baseline assessment to gauge student conceptions of where geomorphic processes fit on a temporal timescale. After misconceptions and naive ideas are addressed by the instructor, the activity is then used to guide students to understand how different geomorphic processes correctly fit into the timescale.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Correctly distinguish geomorphic processes by their timescales.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

In terms of cognitive process, the exercise begins with student recognition of features and scaffolds to involve classification of processes and execution of characterization skills to develop a timescale (Anderson et al. 2001).

Other skills goals for this activity

Students work in small groups to assemble the timescale.

Description of the activity/assignment

Each student or pair of students is provided with an illustration of a landscape, landform, or geomorphic process and asked to place it in the appropriate location on the timescale answer form (Acrobat (PDF) 8kB Feb28 12) (see the list of landforms and geomorphic processes (Excel 74kB May8 12)). The landforms and processes list includes information on time ranges for each time, time in seconds, and time in years. Note that the time ranges represent approximate values for the processes and that the time in seconds and time in years columns represent low-end values for each respective process. Thus, some processes may fit into multiple locations on the timescale answer form and some revision by students will occur during the initial phase of the activity.

After students have completed their first iteration of the timescale, the instructor will assess the placement of each process on the answer form (Acrobat (PDF) 8kB Feb28 12). The instructor will then determine which processes need further explanation. For some processes, lecture or other learning strategies might be implemented if students do not have a good understanding of the scale in which they occur. For other processes, the instructor may facilitate a discussion to lead students to expand, contract, or alter their perceptions of the time range.

Ultimately, and perhaps towards the end of the lecture period or as a quiz, students will again be asked to complete the timescale answer form.

Determining whether students have met the goals

Students can be assessed on definitions of terminology, ability to identify geomorphic features, and correct placement of features along the timescale. Additionally, instructors can modify the timeline as needed (e.g., add/remove landforms, focus on local themes) to best suit their targeted learners.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

Teaching materials and tips

Other Materials

Supporting references/URLs

Anderson, L.W. (Ed.), Krathwohl, D.R. (Ed.), Airasian, P.W., Cruikshank, K.A., Mayer, R.E., Pintrich, P.R., Raths, J., & Wittrock, M.C. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (Complete edition). New York: Longman.

Baker, V. R. (1986). Introduction: Regional landforms analysis. In N. M. Short, Jr., & R. W. Blair, Jr. (Eds.), Geomorphology from space: NASA Special Publication 486. Washington, DC: National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Retrieved 10 April 2012 from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center website at

Jones, Francis (2012). Comparing Knowledge about Rates of Landform Evolution and Geologic Time Using a New Concept Inventory (Acrobat (PDF) 428kB Mar2 12). Presentation at the 2012 Cutting Edge workshop on Teaching about Time.

Jolley, Alison Rae (2010). Identifying Landscapes and their Formation Timescales: Comparing Knowledge and Confidence
of Beginner and Advanced Geoscience Undergraduate Students. Undergraduate Honours Thesis, Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences, University of British Columbia. Retrieved 10 April 2012 from the UBC website at