Using the Geoscience Concept Inventory to Understand How Students Learn about Geologic Time

Document Type

Conference Proceeding

Publication Date



108 pre-service teachers completed a standardized multiple-choice test at the beginning and at the end of a ten-week introductory survey course on geology. Four of the fifteen questions dealt explicitly with geologic time. Correct student answers that the age of the Earth is known from uranium-series dating increased significantly, but only from ~0% to about 20%. However, answers that included U-series dating with other (irrelevant) sources of evidence increased from ~10% to ~70%. On the pre-test, students avoided the U-series dating in favor of incorrect, but probably more familiar, dating techniques or combinations of dating techniques. They seem to have gained familiarity with, if not an understanding of U-series dating in the class. There was no real change in students’ conceptions of what the newly-formed Earth would have looked like. Most (70% on pre-test, 65% on post-test) chose an image that looked like the modern Earth with a single continent (which they may have believed to be Pangea). Interestingly, 78% of those who chose that image on the pre-test chose it on the post-test, so they were not guessing. This is a powerful misconception and remained intact in most cases despite the work the students did in the geology class. On the other hand, most students appeared to be guessing when they answered how long Pangea took to break up. There were no significant changes in the totals for any response, but about half students changed their answers between the pre- and post-test with no significant pattern in the changes. Responses to a choice of timelines which all included the formation of the Earth, the appearances of life, dinosaurs, and humans, and the disappearance of dinosaurs, were more complex. There was an increase in the number of students who chose the correct timeline (from 20% to 42%), and a decrease in the number who chose a timeline in which all life appears at once (from 14% to 10%). In this case some misconceptions (based on incorrect answers on the pre-test) were more likely than others to grow into a correct understanding. For example, students who chose “C”, an incorrect timeline with events in the correct order but incorrectly scaled, on the pretest, were more likely to choose correctly on the post-test than students who gave other incorrect answers on the pre-test.


Presented at the 2009 Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), San Francisco, CA.

Abstract Number ED41B-0532.

Catalog Record