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Mapping your curriculum goals using a Mastery Model

The mastery model is an explicit representation of how expertise develops in a field, in terms of the knowledge, skills, attitudes, approaches, etc., that embody each level. Several studies have shown that most experts have had at least 10 years of concentrated effort in their field before they were recognized as experts. Recognizing and making explicit the progression and timeline for the development of expertise can help determine the content, sequence, learning goals, and assessments for the program.

The description at each level of the grid is a balance between specific and general. It must be specific enough so that faculty and students get a sense of the kinds of abilities and knowledge that are expected at a given level but also general enough so that it can be applied across a range of courses. For example, in Table 1, Year 1-Emergent describes the objective “Can employ foundation skills to express a focused idea within stated objectives”. This level of description enables each course to determine which foundational skills it will address, and what the objectives will be for their realization. Thus the mastery grids can form the foundation for thinking about the learning objectives for specific courses and how they will be implemented. The school can also use the grids to track the progress of individual students and the class as a whole.

The mastery grid can also be used as a tool for providing students with feedback about their current level of mastery, and as a foreshadowing of the skills and knowledge that they will be expected to develop and acquire in the future. The value of the grid (beyond grades) is that it can take into account the level of expertise the student had when entering the program or from the previous year and identify his or her individual progress. For example, students who enter with highly developed skills and obtain A’s can nonetheless show minimal development of their skills, a fact that can be hidden from them and instructors by grades alone. Conversely, a student who enters with minimal skill and obtains low grades may demonstrate significant progress when they are charted against their previous performance measured by the grid. Using the grid repeatedly over the four years as a feedback instrument (either at the end of each semester or the end of each year), students can track their progress, identify areas of strength and weakness, and prepare for future semesters and their professional life beyond Carnegie Mellon.

How to Create a Mastery Model

The first level should indicate the skills, knowledge, strategies, approaches, etc that incoming students should possess. One way to think about this level is that it should articulate your criteria for acceptance to your program. The final level should represent the skills, knowledge, strategies, attitudes, etc. of an expert in your field- someone who is recognized by the field as embodying the highest qualities of process and performance.  The intervening levels show how you believe the skills, knowledge, strategies, etc., develop.

It is often easiest to create the master model starting at the end point, with a description of the abilities and characteristics of an expert, and then moving to the entry point, the description of your criteria for an incoming student. From there you can alternate between navigating forward, thinking in terms of the skills and knowledge that build from the prior ones, and backward, thinking about the prerequisite knowledge and skills. As you develop the model, think about the time and effort needed to accomplish each level, and realistically set your expectations for the level of skill and knowledge acquisition for students at the end of the 4-year undergraduate period, and/or the post-graduate period.

Mastery Grid developed by the Design Option, Drama School, CMU


Theatre Design


Specific interest in visual storytelling; expresses interest in theatrical conservatory training; no process yet developed.


Possesses a passion and aptitude for visual expression; possesses rudimentary skills. Is able to verbally (both written and oral) and visually express a point of view. Has an emerging sense of "Process."

Year 1

Possesses familiarity and basic understanding of fundamental design elements. Acquires some of the basic components of process (i.e., skills, history, general idea making). Can employ foundation skills to express a focused idea within stated objectives. Begins to explain own work and assess the work of others against stated criteria.

Year 2

Continues to develop and expand their facility with the components of the design process as applied to theatrical text. Demonstrates skill facility in support of idea expression. Demonstrates an emerging awareness of self as artist/practitioner, evolves and identifies professional focus areas (lighting, scenery, costume, sound). Has developed a basic understanding of Theatrical Design Processes through guided integration. Explaining and assessing own and others’ work is still conscious and effortful.

Year 3

Commits to the area of their professional focus within the processes of theatrical design. Explores creative pathways that express individual responses and points of view to text and collaborative interactions. Self-implements design processes. Continues to deepen and broaden skills and techniques, including the support for choices and self-assessment.

Year 3

Recognizes and respects the process of theatrical design. Expected to initiate and develop a collaborative design process and successfully manage its production. Able to extend academic applications to professional settings and integrate self-assessments.

Year 4

Possesses an understanding of all of the elements of the design process; successfully engages in a complete collaborative design process from development through opening and is able to lead a complex production process. Can generally assess their work for effective improvement.

Post Graduate

Has gained confidence and proficiency in processes. Demonstrates sustained consistency in deliverables across multiple, simultaneous projects. Meets audience and collaborators’/employers’ expectations within resource parameters. Can consistently and accurately assess their work for effective improvement.


Significant experience in the field has evolved processes that have become self-customized, unique and recognizable. Developing the confidence to experiment and self-activate a personal and professional aesthetic and vision. Sustained consistency in deliverables sometimes producing a transformative experience for both audience and collaborators.


Leader and innovator in their field, has an original, unique voice and vision that consistently inspires collaborators to go beyond the current cultural and societal expectations of dramatic story-telling. The master has vision; Process is instinctive. Consistently produces a transformative experience for both audience and collaborators.

NOTE: Labels used are for demonstration purposes only. Labels should reflect those used in the related field.

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