ALEX Lesson Plan


It's All Absolutely Relative: Creating a Geologic Time Scale

You may save this lesson plan to your hard drive as an html file by selecting "File", then "Save As" from your browser's pull down menu. The file name extension must be .html.

  This lesson provided by:  
Author:Hannah Bradley
System: Dothan City
School: Carver Magnet School
  General Lesson Information  
Lesson Plan ID: 35216


It's All Absolutely Relative: Creating a Geologic Time Scale


Students will begin this lesson by ordering the events of their morning using relative and absolute dating techniques. Students will also write a personal definition of the terms absolute age and relative age. Next, students will work with collaborative groups to order events in Earth's geologic history by relative age, then order those same events by absolute age in a scaled model timeline. Lastly, students will use the time-scale model created with their group members to analyze events in Earth's geologic history.

This lesson results from a collaboration between the Alabama State Department of Education and ASTA. 

 Associated Standards and Objectives 
Content Standard(s):
SC2015 (9-12) Earth and Space Science
8. Develop a time scale model of Earth's biological and geological history to establish relative and absolute age of major events in Earth's history (e.g., radiometric dating, models of geologic cross sections, sedimentary layering, fossilization, early life forms, folding, faulting, igneous intrusions).

Local/National Standards:


Primary Learning Objective(s):

  • Students will be able to describe the difference between relative and absolute age.
  • Students will create a time scale model of life forms that have existed in Earth's geologic history. 
  • Students will be able to utilize the information detailed on the time scale model to analyze geologic events in Earth's history.

Additional Learning Objective(s):

 Preparation Information 

Total Duration:

91 to 120 Minutes

Materials and Resources:

Student Materials (per student)


"It's All Absolutely Relative" Handout (see attachments)

"Geologic Time Scale Model Reflection Questions" Handout (see attachments)

Student Materials (per group)


Metric Ruler

Glue or tape

"Geologic Events-Life Forms Cards" (see attachments)

4.6 meters of adding machine tape, toilet paper, or another material cut to the appropriate length 

"Geologic Events-Life Forms' Absolute Age Cards" (see attachments)

Teacher Materials

Geologic Events-Life Forms Absolute Age Cards Teacher Key (see attachments)

Website for Acceleration Intervention Activities

"Geologic Time" from the University of California Museum of Paleontology at Berkley

Technology Resources Needed:

Student Materials

Students will need an internet capable device for the review activity listed in the Acceleration and Intervention portions of the lesson


According to most scientists, the Earth is approximately 4.6 billion years old. Scientists have gathered information about Earth's biologic and geologic past by studying information, such as fossils and radioactive materials, within rock strata. During the first billion years of Earth's geologic history, no life existed on Earth. According to scientists, the first organisms to develop were anaerobic prokaryotes, such as bacteria, then over the next several billion years, life as know it evolved. As this amount of time is very difficult to comprehend, it is helpful to create scaled models to determine the sequence of events in Earth's geologic history.

Since this lesson serves an introduction to geologic time scales, including relative and absolute age, students do not need to have an understanding of these concepts before beginning the lesson. This lesson will require students to work in collaborative groups to create a scaled model timeline. The teacher may wish to teach the skill of creating a scaled model before beginning this lesson, or the teacher can teach this skill during the lesson by scaffolding students as they calculate the scaled conversions.

The teacher will need to make copies of the attached handouts for each student/group and prepare the materials needed for the collaborative timeline activity.

Note: This lesson was adapted using ideas and information from the following websites. The teacher can visit these websites for additional information about the lesson's content:


Before Strategy/Engage: 25 minutes

1. The teacher should begin by giving students the "It's All Absolutely Relative" handout (see attachments). 

2. The students will begin by ordering the events of their morning in sequential order (first, second, third, etc.). Then students will order the same events using exact times (ex. 6:00 AM).

3. Next, the students will develop a "working definition" of the terms absolute age and relative age. If students are struggling, the teacher can provide a hint: Putting the events in sequential order (first, second, third, etc.) is an example of relative dating while defining each event with an exact time is an example of absolute dating. 

Note: The teacher may wish for students to work with a partner to write a "working definition" of each term.

4. After the students have written their definitions of the terms, the teacher should provide the scientific definitions of the terms and have students write them on their handout. 

Absolute Age: Geologically speaking, absolute age is the number of years since the rock formed. It can be determined by radiometric dating. (Example: That rock is 1 million years old.)

Relative Age: Geologically speaking, relative age is stated as an age comparison between two geological formations (Example: That rock is older than this rock because that rock formed first.) 

During Strategy/Explore & Explain: 50 minutes

1. For the next portion of the lesson, students should be divided into groups of four to five students each. 

2. The teacher should give each group a copy of "Geologic Events-Life Forms Cards" (see attachments). The students should work together to cut out the cards and arrange them in chronological order, from the oldest organism to the youngest organism. At this point, the teacher should not correct students' answers. 

3. After each group orders their cards, the teacher should lead a discussion on relative vs. absolute age. The teacher should ask the students, "Did you order your cards by relative dating or absolute dating? How do you know?"

Possible Answer: The cards were ordered according to relative age, as we ordered the cards by which organism existed first, next, last, etc. We did not order them by absolute age because we did not order them by their specific geologic age. 

4. Next, the teacher will provide each group with 4.6 meters of adding machine tape. If this material is not available, the teacher can use toilet paper or tape sheets of paper together until the appropriate length is reached. 

5. The students should label one end of the paper "Origin of Earth-4.6 bya (Precambrian Era)" (bya=billion years ago) and the other end of the paper "Today (Cenozoic Era)". 

6. The teacher should give each group the "Geologic Events-Life Forms' Absolute Age" handout (see attachments). This handout will provide the absolute age of each organism. Students will use a scale of one meter is equal to one billion years to place each organism in the correct order on the paper timeline. The students should begin by using the scale factor to determine the correct placement of each organism on the time scale model. The students will find the scaled distance by dividing the absolute age of the organism by the corresponding scale factor (See attachments for teacher key.) Next, the students should find the organism to most recently exist and measure the scaled distance from the end of the paper marked "Today". 

Example: The first modern humans existed 100,000 years ago. [Using a scale factor of 1 millimeter=1 million years-100,000/1,000,000=0.1 mm] The students will measure 0.1 mm from the end of the paper marked "Today" and place the Absolute Age card for "First Modern Humans" at this location.

7. The students will continue these steps for the remaining organisms until the oldest organism is placed on the timeline. 

Example: The first bacteria existed 2.5 billion years ago. [Using a scale factor of 1 meter=1 billion years-2,500,000,000/1,000,000,000=2.5 m] The students will measure 2.5 m from the end of the paper marked "Today" and place the Absolute Age card for "Bacteria" at this location.

 After Strategy-Explain & Elaborate-25 minutes

1. The students will use both timelines created in the during activity to answer reflection questions about the concepts learned while creating the scaled geologic timeline using the Geologic Time Scale Model Reflection Questions handout. The teacher may let the students complete the reflection questions independently or with group members. The students will need a Geologic Time Scale, such as this "Geologic Time Scale" from  University of California Museum of Paleontology at Berkeley, to answer some of the questions.

**Some files will display in a new window. Others will prompt you to download.

Assessment Strategies

Formative Assessment

The teacher will informally assess students' understanding of absolute and relative age by reviewing each student's "working definition" of these terms in the before strategy. The teacher will informally assess students as they work in groups to place the organisms in order of relative and absolute age in the during strategy. The teacher should discuss student's placement of each organism on the timeline to ensure students understand the difference between relative and absolute age.

Summative Assessment

The teacher should formally assess student's reflection questions completed in the after strategy of the lesson. Students' answers to these questions should demonstrate the student's knowledge of relative and absolute age, as well as an understanding of the geologic time scale model created in the during strategy.


Teachers could identify students who require acceleration opportunities and appoint these students as group leaders for the collaborative timeline activity. 

Students who finish the independent activities can complete a review activity using the following website: "Geologic Time" from the University of California Museum of Paleontology at Berkeley. 


Students who need additional preparation before the lesson or extra review after the lesson can complete the activities on the following website: "Geologic Time" from the University of California Museum of Paleontology at Berkeley. 

Each area below is a direct link to general teaching strategies/classroom accommodations for students with identified learning and/or behavior problems such as: reading or math performance below grade level; test or classroom assignments/quizzes at a failing level; failure to complete assignments independently; difficulty with short-term memory, abstract concepts, staying on task, or following directions; poor peer interaction or temper tantrums, and other learning or behavior problems.

Presentation of Material Environment
Time Demands Materials
Attention Using Groups and Peers
Assisting the Reluctant Starter Dealing with Inappropriate Behavior
Be sure to check the student's IEP for specific accommodations.