Perfecting the Design

by Christy Eck

The 2017 Alumni Award recipient John D. Bell's influence on BYU

When asked about his greatest accomplishment during his career, Dr. John Bell does not mention his administrative work for BYU, nor does he pause to consider the five awards he has received for outstanding teaching. Bell, this year’s recipient of the Alumni Achievement Award from the College of Life Sciences, says, “The students who have worked in my research group—they’re my greatest accomplishment.” Bell’s focus on his students has been the common thread running through his career. It is the reason he received those teaching awards, has influenced his administration and his scholarship, and is what faculty and students alike remember him by. Bell taught at BYU from 1990 to 2015, serving as the chair of the then Department of Zoology from 1998 to 2001, the associate dean of the college from 2001 to 2008, and the dean of undergraduate education from 2008 to 2015. In 2015, he transferred to our sister university, BYU–Hawaii, where he is now the vice president of academics.

Each year, graduates from each of BYU’s colleges who have made outstanding professional achievements receive the Alumni Achievement Award. Bell modestly wonders why he was chosen for the award, but conversations with him and his colleagues make the reasons crystal clear.

In his work for students, Bell might justly be termed an experience designer. Throughout his career, he has envisioned and implemented improvements in student experiences, from the learning experience of students in his own classroom to the experience of honors students across BYU campus. Soon after Bell began teaching, he became interested in the quality of his students’ learning. This interest, he says, “led me to a career of trying to find new and better ways to teach and assess whether the students were actually learning something from it.” Dean James Porter confirms Bell’s focus on teaching and learning, saying, “John is unique in that his scholarship, teaching, and citizenship melded together so well. . . . His contribution to teaching at BYU went far beyond his work in the classroom. He published regularly his scholarly work in the area of improving science teaching and was an untiring advocate for [the] incorporation of active learning and other new pedagogies into classtime activities.”

In the life sciences, it is easy to get into the pattern of memorizing information for just long enough to use it on a test, Bell says, but “after the course is over, is it really retained, have you really learned, have you really been changed, transformed by the experience?” One experience he designed for his students was to help them better retain what they learned. He designed a class structure in which students take a test every week, and only improved scores count towards their grade. This system emphasizes improvement throughout the semester. It is combined with coursework that helps students use the information they learn to solve problems rather than just memorize. Such a system takes some of the pressure out of taking a college course while helping the students learn more effectively. While Bell was implementing this system in his own classroom, many students who would have gotten Cs in a traditional grading scheme got As because they had learned the material by the semester’s end.

When Bell became the dean of undergraduate education at BYU, he continued optimizing the student experience. He, along with a team, revised the honors program to be a better match for BYU students. “What is it that we’re honoring here?” was the guiding question for the team. Bell says that “when you just honor achievement, sometimes it actually interferes with the students’ decision to take some risks in their education.” The team recognized that BYU students are naturally driven to get good grades and that BYU already uses Latin honors at graduation (such as summa cum laude) to honor academic achievement. Therefore, they decided, “instead of academic achievement, let’s honor achievement in terms of things that a student produces.” The current honors program still includes an honors thesis and now includes a great questions essay along with peer mentoring, a study abroad, or academic service. Rather than continuing GPA requirements for the honors program, they decided to "open this up for the B minus student or the B student who really wants to do something special."

Bell assisted in transforming BYU's old program for freshmen into its current form, first year mentoring. Bell was also a member of a committee to reorganize the college in 2001. It was under his leadership of this committee that the College of Life Sciences, under that title, came to be. Porter says of this work, "John's impact on our college is difficult to quantify. His influence on the curriculum of the new academic programs (both undergraduate and graduate) was tremendous. Though modifications have been made . . . the basic foundations of our undergraduate and graduate programs still bear John's imprint."

Throughout his time at BYU, Bell never tired of designing improved experiences for his students. Because of his concern for student learning, Bell's imprint has indeed been made on BYU, on the college, and on every student he taught.