Skip to main content

Mountaintop Fossil

Each of the first four volumes provides 25 probes with easy-to-follow steps for uncovering and addressing students’ ideas by promoting learning through conceptual change instruction. Probes cover topics such as physical, life, and Earth and space science; the nature of science; and unifying themes. Each volume on page 23 provides topic-specific probes. These invaluable books include teacher materials that explain content, identify links to standards, and suggest grade-appropriate ways to present materials so students learn the concepts accurately. Teachers, professional development coordinators, and college science and preservice faculty will find these resources essential and exciting.

Mountaintop Fossil

Access this probe as a Google form: English | Español

Download this probe as an editable PDF: English | Español


The purpose of this assessment probe is to elicit students’ ideas about mountain formation. The probe is designed to determine whether students recognize that some mountains are formed from the uplift of Earth’s crust over a long period of time as a result of tectonic plate interaction, including areas that were once covered by ocean.

Type of Probe

Friendly talk

Related Concepts

Fossil, uplift, mountain formation, plate tectonics


The best answer is Rosa’s: A mountain formed in an area that was once covered by ocean. Over long periods of geologic time, Earth’s crust goes through several changes. Where oceans, shallow seas, and muddy marshes once existed, today there may be mountains. Ancient marine organisms died and were covered with sediments that, over time, hardened and formed sedimentary rock. The imprints left by the hard shells of mollusks and even mineralized parts of their shells remained in the sedimentary rock. Additional layers of sedimentary rock formed over the fossils. Over a long period of time, these layers of rock were uplifted through the movement of tectonic plates to form mountains. As mountains formed, the fossils were elevated along with the rock in which they were formed. Today, the processes of weathering and erosion expose the fossils in the rock that were formed millions of years ago. Marine fossils are found on some of the world’s highest mountain chains, such as the Himalayas, which are still increasing in height today as tectonic plates push the land upward.

Curricular and Instructional Considerations

Elementary Students

Elementary students should have the opportunity to learn about different types of landforms, rocks, and fossils with an understanding that there are processes that change the surface of Earth over long periods of time. Upper elementary students learn how rock layers are used as evidence to understand changes that happen to Earth over time. They use maps to look for patterns of surface features, such as mountain ranges, and begin to develop an understanding of processes related to plate tectonics.

Middle School Students

The study of Earth’s history provides evidence about the evolution of Earth’s features, including the distribution of land and sea, features of the crust such as mountains, and the populations of living organisms that existed at different times. Students develop an understanding that Earth has gone through many changes and that where oceans once existed, mountains may exist today. Students use the theory of plate tectonics and its relationship to the rock cycle to explain changes to Earth. At this level, students move from recognizing patterns of mountain chain formation to understanding how tectonic processes created these mountain chains. Students use evidence from rock strata, fossils, and geologic mapping to better understand geological changes.

High School Students

At this level, students build on their middle school knowledge of Earth’s geologic history, developing an integrated understanding about the Earth system that includes the rock cycle, crustal dynamics, geochemical processes, and the expanded concept of geologic time. They understand and use the evidence base for determining the story of Earth’s crust, climate, and evolving life-forms.

Administering the Probe

This probe can be used with students in grades 3–12. It may be helpful to show students an example of a shell fossil. You might also show a picture of a tall mountain chain, such as the Andes, where shell fossils have been found.

Related Disciplinary Core Ideas (NRC 2012; NGSS Lead States 2013)

3–5 ESS2.B: Plate Tectonics and Large-Scale System Interactions

  • The locations of mountain ranges, deep ocean trenches, ocean floor structures, earthquakes, and volcanoes occur in patterns. Most earthquakes and volcanoes occur in bands that are often along the boundaries between continents and oceans. Major mountain chains form inside continents or near their edges. Maps can help locate the different land and water features of Earth.

3–5 ESS1.C: The History of Planet Earth

  • Local, regional, and global patterns of rock formations reveal changes over time due to earth forces, such as earthquakes. The presence and location of certain fossil types indicate the order in which rock layers were formed.

6–8 ESS1.C: The History of Planet Earth

  • The geologic time scale interpreted from rock strata provides a way to organize Earth’s history. Analyses of rock strata and the fossil record provide only relative dates, not an absolute scale.

6–8 ESS2.B: Plate Tectonics and Large-Scale System Interactions

  • Maps of ancient land and water patterns, based on investigations of rocks and fossils, make clear how Earth’s plates have moved great distances, collided, and spread apart.

9–12 ESS2.B: Plate Tectonics and Large Scale System Interactions

  • Plate movements are responsible for most continental and ocean-floor features and for the distribution of most rocks and minerals within Earth’s crust.
  • Plate tectonics is the unifying theory that explains the past and current movements of the rocks at Earth’s surface and provides a framework for understanding its geologic history.

Related Research

  • A study by Horizons Research identified several misconceptions related to mountain formation: All changes to Earth’s surface occur suddenly and rapidly; earthquakes, volcanoes, and mountain formation usually occur in the same general areas, but there is no explanation for this; and mountains form when earthquakes push the ground up (Ford and Taylor 2006).
  • Students have a difficult time understanding the magnitude of geologic time. Because their experience with time has been in seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, and years, the concept of thousands, millions, and billions of years is almost incomprehensible (Trend 1998).
  • Some students have a landform and ocean basin conception that involves a progressively decreasing slope from the center of the continents to the center of the bottom of the ocean and then back up again (Marques and Thompson 1997).
  • Students may think of mountain-building as occurring only through catastrophic events such as earthquakes or volcanoes. They often fail to recognize the slow process of uplift over millions of years (Phillips 1991).
  • Students of all ages may hold the view that the world has always been the way it is now and any changes that occurred were sudden and comprehensive (Freyberg 1985).

Suggestions for Instruction and Assessment

  • The probe “Is It a Fossil?” in Uncovering Student Ideas in Earth and Environmental Science can be used to elicit students’ ideas about fossils and how they are formed (Keeley and Tucker 2016).
  • Have students use the analogy that Earth is like a puzzle to illustrate how evidence from our geologic past is pieced together to explain puzzling phenomena such as how a whale fossil ended up on top of an Andes mountain peak.
  • When revisiting the probe a second time, and after students have had the opportunity to learn about and use ideas and evidence about how mountains are formed, ask students to use the crosscutting concept of scale in their revised explanations.
  • Have students identify tall mountain chains, such as the Himalayas and Andes, research the type of fossils found on those mountains, and explain why they are found there.
  • Be aware that some students may use the biblical explanation of a huge global flood to explain how ancient marine organisms ended up on mountaintops. Share evidence first explained by Leonardo da Vinci as to why this explanation cannot explain how marine fossils ended up on mountaintops. For example, fossils on mountains are often in the same positions as they would be found when living. A flood would have scattered organisms and redeposited them (Gould 1998).
  • Challenge students to explain how marine fossils on mountain ranges get exposed. Link ideas about weathering and erosion to exposure of fossils that were once covered by rock layers.
  • Students should see many different types of landforms to determine and describe the different ways in which they formed.
  • Videos or internet simulations of mountain-building processes, particularly the slower uplifts and not the catastrophic types such as volcanoes, provide a vicarious way for students to observe long-term constructive processes.

Related NSTA Resources

Keeley, P. 2015. Mountaintop fossil: A puzzling phenomenon. Science and Children 53 (4): 24–26.

Rivet, A. E. 2017. Core idea ESS2: Earth’s systems. In Disciplinary core ideas: Reshaping teaching and learning, ed. R. G. Duncan, J. Krajcik, and A. E. Rivet, 205–223. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.

Wheeler-Toppen, J. 2016. Once upon an Earth science Book: 12 interdisciplinary activities to create confident readers. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.


Ford, B., and M. Taylor. 2006. Investigating students’ ideas about plate tectonics. Science Scope 30 (1): 38–43.

Freyberg, P. 1985. Implications across the curriculum. In Learning in science, ed. R. Osborne and P. Freyberg, 125–135. Auckland, New Zealand: Heinemann.

Gould, S. J. 1998. Leonardo’s mountain of clams and the diet of worms. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Keeley, P., and L. Tucker. 2016. Is it a fossil? In Uncovering student ideas in Earth and environmental science: 32 new formative assessment probes, P. Keeley and L. Tucker, 91–94. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.

Marques, L., and D. Thompson. 1997. Misconceptions and conceptual changes concerning continental drift and plate tectonics among Portuguese students aged 16–17. Research in Science and Technological Education 15 (2): 195–222.

National Research Council (NRC). 2012. A framework for K–12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For states by states. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Phillips, W. 1991. Earth science misconceptions. The Science Teacher 58 (2): 21–23.

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.

Asset 2