Teaching Temporal Thinking: Rates and Time

An understanding of geologic time is fundamental for all students in geoscience courses. Determining the rates of geoscience processes and dates of key events lie at the heart of much of geoscience research. Concepts associated with how geoscientists determine rates and dates, and the the immense scope of geologic time encompassed by Earth's history, are difficult for students to learn and challenging for instructors to teach.

What Is Temporal Thinking? | Temporal Thinking in the Geosciences | Teaching Temporal Thinking | Events | Get Involved

What Is Temporal Thinking?

Temporal thinking is thinking about time, including thinking about events in a temporal context. It plays a role in many disciplines, including history, anthropology, archeology, evolutionary biology, astrophysics, and the geosciences. Read more about temporal thinking.

Temporal Thinking in the Geosciences

In the context of geoscience, "temporal thinking" includes several facets: the scope of Earth history, the range of rates at which geologic processes occur (from nearly instantaneous events such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions to the erosion of mountains over hundreds of millions of years), the durations of those events, and the sequence of events within the Earth's history. Because many of these time scales and rates are beyond human experience, they present significant cognitive challenges and merit special attention within our curricula. Read more about temporal thinking in the geosciences.

Teaching Temporal Thinking

The Place of Temporal Thinking in the Curriculum

Because of the vast geologic time scale and extreme variability in geologic rates, temporal thinking is best developed through multiple exposures in multiple contexts. To produce graduates who are proficient at temporal thinking, we need to infuse it in our undergraduate curricula. See examples of how faculty are teaching temporal thinking across the geoscience curriculum.

Selected Pedagogical Approaches

Resource Collections

  • Courses with a focus on geologic time.
  • Learning Goals for Geologic Time is a list of possible learning objectives related to temporal concepts, based on the key ideas in the Earth Science Literacy Principles. This is not intended to be a comprehensive list of possible learning goals, but it may help you to articulate your own list. Learn more about setting effective course goals in the Course Design Tutorial.
  • Teaching Activities about geologic rates and time. One subset of these activities is our collection of posters about teaching activities, drawn from the presentations given at the 2005 GSA session on Geologic Rates and Time (see below).
  • Assessments of student learning, with a focus on geologic time or temporal concepts.
  • Visualizations relating to rates and time that are useful in the classroom.
  • Selected essays on teaching and learning about temporal concepts, from participants at the 2012 workshop on Teaching about Time and scholars of temporal learning.


Get Involved

  • Contribute materials: If you have a teaching activity or course you'd like to add to our collections, please do.

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