David Clark wins the MAA's Henry L. Alder Award

2019 David Clark

In his young career, David Clark has already been recognized with two prestigious teaching awards. A year ago, we reported in the Gazette on his selection by GVSU students as the 2018 recipient of the Student Award for Faculty Excellence. Not long afterwards, David was recognized as one of the three recipients of the Mathematical Association of America’s (MAA) 2018 Henry L. Alder Award for distinguished teaching by early career faculty. Professor Clark is the first GVSU faculty member to receive this honor from the MAA.

As the MAA’s citation notes, since earning his PhD, David “has been an innovative and energetic teacher, leader, and scholar.” He’s been heavily involved in leading undergraduate research projects, in using Standards-Based Grading, and in work with MathPath (a summer math program for students aged 11-14, that will be hosted at GVSU in the summer of 2019). To date, David has mentored more than 20 research students and many of these students have gone on to receive awards for their presentation or recognition of their work through peer-reviewed publication. He and two colleagues from other universities are currently co-editing a special issue of the journal PRIMUS (Problems, Resources, and Issues in Mathematics Undergraduate Studies) on the topic of mastery grading, an approach to grading that promotes learning by replacing points and partial credit with multiple opportunities to fully master new ideas. Even though he is in just his fifth year at GVSU, David is already viewed as a national leader on the issue of mastery grading.

2019 David Clark

At Mathfest 2018 in Denver, the summer meeting of the MAA, David was formally recognized with the Alder Award and gave a plenary presentation as part of the award. In that talk, David spoke of the role of productive failure in his teaching. Productive failure is what happens when a person makes a mistake, but as a result, learn something from it. For instance, they may see a new approach, or become stronger or wiser.


In his presentation, David spoke of how GVSU’s mission drives his work, particularly for how our mission necessitates the embrace of productive failure: “Grand Valley State University educates students to shape their lives, their professions, and their societies. One of the things that means is that we’re not merely training students to take part in the world as it is, but we're helping them be ready to shape it. To change it. To do things that have never been done before. If we want students to ask questions that have never been asked before, to answer them in ways we've never thought of, to be creative and flexible and ready for a world that we don’t yet live in and can only guess at, then we know they're going to screw up along the way. There is no possible way that they’re going to get it right on the first try. So we know they’re going to fail. We thus must structure our classes in a way that recognizes that students will fail, and values turning that into productive failure. To not give up. To learn from it, to reflect, to understand that failing is a real and constant part of success. And then to do something.”

David lives out the importance of productive failure in his classes by having his students encounter new ideas before seeing them in class, using low-stakes opportunities based on effort and completion. He also offers opportunities in class to try and fail (including to highlight things that don’t work), and uses mastery grading so that students aren’t penalized if they don’t succeed on the first try. Or even the second. Indeed, mastery grading emphasizes the importance of understanding eventually, and that as long as you demonstrate that understanding eventually, you should earn a good mark in the course.

2019 Clark and GVSU faculty

Professor Clark is deeply appreciated by his students for the way he obviously cares for them, for how hard he works on their behalf, and how he endeavors to make them better. In his MAA presentation, he recounted the many ways that he himself has made mistakes in his teaching, as well as his efforts to learn from those mistakes and get better. Indeed, teaching is a mastery-based endeavor: one that’s impossible to get right the first time, and that takes repeated attempts to get better and better. He closed his talk by saying, “I like the sound of my own voice. But my voice is everywhere in my classes -- in how they’re designed, in the choices I’ve made, in the structure of everything we do. Sometimes, it’s best to sit down and be quiet and let my students be heard. And now, I think I’ll do just that.”

The GVSU Department of Mathematics joins the MAA in congratulating David Clark on this high honor and looks forward to all the ways that he’ll continue to impact students as his career progresses.

Page last modified April 7, 2019