• Kim A. CheekEmail author


An understanding of geologic time is comprised of 2 facets. Events in Earth’s history can be placed in relative and absolute temporal succession on a vast timescale. Rates of geologic processes vary widely, and some occur over time periods well outside human experience. Several factors likely contribute to an understanding of geologic time, one of which is an individual’s ability to perceive the relative size of large time periods and to move multiplicatively through quantities that differ by many orders of magnitude. Thirty-five US students aged 13–24 years participated in task-based interviews to assess their understanding of large temporal periods. Fewer than half of the students performed well enough to indicate that their knowledge of large numbers was robust enough to enable them to understand processes in geologic time. Some students were confused about relationships between quantities in the thousands and millions, while others had difficulty showing proportional relationships among relatively small temporal units (up to 100 years). Students differed in their ability to perceive the entire scale upon which numbers were to be placed as well as broader problem-solving strategies. Spatial mapping of numbers was evident. Implications for future research are discussed.


duration geologic time geoscience large numbers number lines number sense proportional reasoning spatial mapping succession 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Acredolo, C., Adams, A. & Schmid, J. (1984). On the understanding of the relationships between speed, duration, and distance. Child Development, 55(6), 2151–2159.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Booth, J. & Siegler, R. (2006). Developmental and individual differences in pure numerical estimation. Developmental Psychology, 41(6), 189–201.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Casasanto, D. & Boroditsky, L. (2008). Time in the mind: Using space to think about time. Cognition, 106, 579–593.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Catley, K. & Novick, L. (2009). Digging deep: Exploring college students’ knowledge of macroevolutionary time. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 46(3), 311–332.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Cheek, K. A. (2010a). Why is geologic time troublesome knowledge? In J. H. F. Meyer, R. Land, & C. Baillie (Eds.), Threshold concepts and transformational learning (pp. 117–129). Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.Google Scholar
  6. Cheek, K. A. (2010b). Factors underlying students’ conceptions of deep time: An exploratory study (Ph.D.). Durham University, Durham, UK.Google Scholar
  7. Cheek, K. A. (2011). Exploring the relationship between students’ understanding of conventional and deep (geologic) time. International Journal of Science Education, 1–21. doi: 10.1080/09500693.2011.
  8. Dehaene, S., Izard, V., Spelke, E. & Pica, P. (2008). Log or linear? Distinct intuitions of the number scale in Western and Amazonian indigene cultures. Science, 320, 1217–1220.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. deHevia, D. & Spelke, E. (2009). Spontaneous mapping of number and space in adults and young children. Cognition, 110, 198–207.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Dodick, J. & Orion, N. (2003). Cognitive factors affecting student understanding of geologic time. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 40(4), 415–442.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Friedman, W. (1992). The development of children’s representations of temporal structure. In F. Makar, V. Pouthas, & W. J. Friedman (Eds.), Time, action and cognition: Towards bridging the gap (pp. 67–75). Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic.Google Scholar
  12. Goldin, G. (2000). A scientific perspective on structure, task-based interviews in mathematics education research. In A. Kelly & R. Lesh (Eds.), Handbook of research design in mathematics and science education (pp. 517–545). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  13. Hidalgo, A. & Otero, J. (2004). An analysis of the understanding of geological time by students at secondary and post-secondary level. International Journal of Science Education, 26(7), 845–857.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Hume, J. (1979). An understanding of geologic time. Journal of Geological Education, 26, 141–143.Google Scholar
  15. Izard, V. & Dehaene, S. (2008). Calibrating the mental number line. Cognition, 106, 1221–1247.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Janssen, S., Chessa, A. & Murre, J. (2006). Memory for time: How people date events. Memory and Cognition, 34(1), 138–147.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Kadosh, R., Tzelgov, J. & Henik, A. (2008). A synthetic walk on the mental number line: The size effect. Cognition, 106, 548–557.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Kortz, K. M. & Murray, D. P. (2009). Barriers to college students learning how rocks form. Journal of Geoscience Education, 57(4), 300–315.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Kusnick, J. (2002). Growing pebbles and conceptual prisms—Understanding the source of student misconceptions about rock formation. Journal of Geoscience Education, 50(1), 31–39.Google Scholar
  20. Laski, E. & Siegler, R. (2007). Is 27 a big number? Correlational and causal connections. Child Development, 78(6), 1723–1743.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Libarkin, J., Anderson, S., Science, J. D., Beilfuss, M. & Boone, W. (2005). Qualitative analysis of college students’ ideas about the Earth: Interviews and open-ended questionnaires. Journal of Geoscience Education, 53(1), 17–26.Google Scholar
  22. Libarkin, J., Kurdziel, J. & Anderson, S. (2007). College student conceptions of geological time and the disconnect between ordering and scale. Journal of Geoscience Education, 55(5), 413–422.Google Scholar
  23. Marques, L. & Thompson, D. (1997). Portuguese students’ understanding at ages 10–11 and 14–15 of the origin and nature of the Earth and the development of life. Research in Science & Technological Education, 15(1), 2–22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. National Research Council (1996). National Science Education Standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.Google Scholar
  25. Oversby, J. (1996). Knowledge of earth science and the potential for its development. School Science Review, 78(283), 91–97.Google Scholar
  26. Piaget, J. (1969). The child’s conception of time. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.Google Scholar
  27. Siegler, R. & Opfer, J. (2003). The development of numerical estimation: Evidence for multiple representations of numerical quantity. Psychological Science, 14(3), 237–243.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Siegler, R., Thompson, C. A. & Opfer, J. (2009). The logarithmic-to-linear shift: One learning sequence, many tasks, many time scales. Mind, Brain, and Education, 3(3), 143–150.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Thompson, C. A. & Opfer, J. (2010). How 15 hundred is like 15 cherries: Effect of progressive alignment on representational changes in numerical cognition. Child Development, 81, 1768–1786.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Trend, R. (1998). An investigation into understanding of geological time among 10- and 11-year-old children. International Journal of Science Education, 20(8), 973–988.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Trend, R. (2000). Conceptions of geological time among primary teacher trainees, with reference to their engagement with geoscience, history, and science. International Journal of Science Education, 22(5), 539–555.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Trend, R. (2001). Deep time framework: A preliminary study of U.K. primary teachers’ conceptions of geological time and perceptions of geoscience. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 38(2), 191–221.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Walsh, V. (2003). A theory of magnitude: Common cortical metrics of time, space and quantity. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7(11), 483–488.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Zen, E.-A. (2001). What is deep time and why should anyone care? Journal of Geoscience Education, 49(1), 5–9.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© National Science Council, Taiwan 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of EducationValley Forge Christian CollegePhoenixvilleUSA

Personalised recommendations