The History of the Earth: Classroom Activity

The activity is authored by Heather Petcovic, Western Michigan University. Part 1 of the activity is based on the activity described in Hermann and Lewis, 2004, A formative assessment of geologic time for high school Earth Science students, Journal of Geoscience Education, v. 52, n. 3, p. 231-235.
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Initial Publication Date: March 14, 2007 | Reviewed: December 10, 2020


In this classroom activity, students first use an interview with an older adult to construct a timescale. Students use criteria of their choosing to divide the timescale into periods, then compare and contrast timescales among the class. Students are next given important events in the history of the earth and are invited to first develop a scaled representation of the earth's history based on their prior knowledge. Students then use classroom and Internet resources to place the same events in the proper order and at the correct locations along the timescale. Finally, students investigate the geologic timescale and place eons and eras of geologic time on the same scale as earth events. Comparisons are drawn between the human life timescale and geologic time. For assessment, the instructor grades written student responses to questions in the student course pack. The student course pack activity and instructor notes are provided.

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Learning Goals

Upon completion of this activity students should be able to: identify major events in the history of the earth and place these in the correct relative sequence, distinguish between instantaneous and gradual events in earth's history, explain how the geologic timescale was created, recognize the time span of eras and eons of geologic time, and represent amounts of time as linear distances.

Context for Use

This activity is used in an introductory-level physcial and historical geology class specifically designed for pre-service elementary teachers. The activity takes place during one, 2-hour and 20-minute class period. Activity, small group work and discussion, and whole class discussion are integrated during the activity; there is no separate lecture. The activity takes place at the end of the historical geology unit of the course, after students have learned material related to fossils and relative and absolute age dating techniques. Required equipment includes computers with Internet access.

Description and Teaching Materials

The student course pack activity Activity Sheet (Acrobat (PDF) 65kB Feb22 07) includes a statement of the problem and objectives of the activity, questions for students to consider prior to completing the activity, student materials and procedures for completing the activity, and questions to turn in to the instructor for assessment once the activity is complete.

Teaching Notes and Tips

The instructor notes Instructor's Notes (Acrobat (PDF) 48kB Feb22 07) include a list of materials to prepare and assemble prior to starting the activity, suggestions for how to introduce the activity and engage the class in a discussion of the topic, prompting questions to draw out student prior knowledge of the topic, a suggested sequence of events and approximate time to complete each part of the activity, tips for where students generally encounter problems in completing the activity, suggestions for engaging students in class discussion of the topic, and an answer guide to the assessment questions in the student course pack.


Formative assessment occurs as students complete the activity. The instructor can gauge student learning by circulating among student groups and questioning individual students as they complete the activity, monitoring student progress as they construct the timescales, and asking questions to guide the whole class discussion of the topic. Summative assessment of learning occurs as students write responses to questions included in the student course pack activity. Responses are graded (grading key included in the instructor notes) and instructor feedback guides the whole class wrap-up discussion of what has been learned from the activity.

References and Resources