Monthly Archives: April 2016

PSIA Level 2 Alpine Exam

This past weekend, I took the skiing and teaching portion of the PSIA Level 2 instructor examination. I am writing this to share a bit of the experience, and to offer a few thoughts on the process. I hope this will be useful as you journey towards your level 2. I’m planning on feeding some of this back into how we prepare/clinic at Olympic, but that will be the subject of another post.

I passed one of the portions and did not pass the other, but to retain a sense of mystery I shall keep the identity of which module I passed until later in the post.

Day 1: Skiing

Day 1 starts at 8:30 AM in the Pacific Crest Lodge at Stevens Pass, my home mountain, when we meet our instructors clinicians examiners. That distinction will be important later on. We were assigned to groups of 6 or 7, with two examiners plus an optional examiner-in-training and an observer.

The goal of the day is to evaluate each of the candidates to see whether they meet the PSIA national standards for Level 2. There is a pdf here that describe the national standards; in addition to that, you need to understand how your particular division approaches certification. I’m in the Northwest division, so my guide is here, those for the Rocky Mountains are here, Eastern is here, etc.

The day of skiing is broken up into a number of different tasks, 10 in all. Some are directly related to things that you need to do to teach intermediate skiers (the target of level 2) – things like medium radius turns, wedge Christies, and off-piste skiing. Others tasks are designed to help the examiners determine if you meet the level 2 standard for one or more of the 5 fundamentals.

So, after a brief warmup, we start doing tasks. We move around the mountain because we have spring conditions, which are pretty variable. We generally get a couple of chances on a given task, and there is pretty much zero feedback from the instructors unless it relates something like the size of turns they want us to make. Other than watching the other skiers and trying to correlate their performance to your own, there is no way to know how you are doing.

This is by design.

During the tasks, the examiners are intently watching us and taking notes. Between the tasks, the examiners are watching in an off-hand way; remember, the goal is for them to evaluate your performance throughout the day. I think the intention is for them to see you in less structured environments where you are less nervous, but what it really means is that you are trying to ski your best for the whole time you are out on the snow. It is an exhausting experience.

My performance is not great. I have traditionally been pretty strong on the groomed, and I’ve spent a lot of this year working on improving my off-piste skiing, and my last skiing was on a trip where we had a couple of nice days of fresh snow. I recommend very highly that you do not take the approach I did, as it really messed up my focus during the test. Most of the tasks require either very little edge engagement or very good edge engagement, and that’s where the practice should be.

But the fresh snow was very nice…

In our preparation for the exam, we had a lot of discussion about terrain that was appropriate for each task. As far as I can remember, this is where my group skied.

  1. Off piste: From the top of skyline, traverse under the 7th lift base off into the ungroomed, and then ski a face there and then down the face of windy ridge. Then the more distinct bumps under the skyline chair at the bottom.
  2. Skating. I think we did this in the middle of daisy. Everybody in my group could skate, and our examiners spent little time on this.
  3. Straight line hop from ski to ski. We did this at the bottom of hog heaven. We also didn’t spend much time on this, which surprise me a bit.
  4. Pivot slips. The kickover face on rock-n-blue.
  5. Short radius. The steep part of I-5 which was groomed. It felt black to me and – other than the off-piste – was the steepest pitch we skied.
  6. Medium radius – rock-n-blue
  7. Rhythm changes – rock-n-blue
  8. Wedge christie – skyline at the top of windy ridge working down to the flatter part, then along near the terrain park.
  9. Leapers – rock-n-blue
  10. One-ski turns – this was either rock-n-blue or hog heaven.

The terrain choice seems fair to me. The short radius were maybe a little too steep, but that was probably the only place on the mountain that had a firm groomed surface.

At 3PM we were done. Those who were only doing the skiing go their results at 4:30PM; the rest of us would find out both sets of results at the end of the teaching day.

I think the skiing part is *relatively* straightforward. The tasks are clear, and you just stay with the group and try to ski them to the best of your ability. The examiners did a good job within the constraints of the format. More on that later.

Day 2: Teaching

Skiing was the physical day, and teaching is the mental day. it consists of the following activities:

  • A 20 minute teaching segment in which you will teach a topic assigned to you. The topics go from “first day on the snow” through higher-level intermediate topics, and then a wildcard to teach one of the tasks fro the skiing day.

  • A 5 minute short teaching session.
  • Motion analysis; this might be watching a skier and commenting on them, or watching instructors ski and doing motion analysis on the differences they show.

We drew our teaching segments out of the hat. I got, “Day one skiing, working with gliding, stopping, and turning”. My wife and I had spent some time discussion how we would teach each of these, and I was hoping I didn’t get this one (which I think is the hardest one to teach), but on reviewing my notes in the morning I had a bit of an inspiration, and when I drew that topic, I decided I was going to go with my inspiration.

I taught second, and I highly recommend teaching in the morning if you can. I found it hard to be focused later in the day (though to be fair, one of our candidates taught at 1:30 and she absolutely nailed it). The teaching segment is about teaching something appropriate to the other candidates, something they can learn from. There aren’t any skiing skills I can teach to the candidates, so I elected to work the mental side; I wanted to get the back into the mindset of a beginner, and specifically, get a bit of that nervousness and apprehension in their brains. I did that by having them ski straight on a very flat slope towards a slightly steeper slope, but I made them do it with their eyes closed. And then we did some skiing with our weight far to the aft. My point in all of this – which I drew out by asking them questions – was that the mindset of day one beginners is very fragile, and you have to go overboard in making things not only safe, but obviously safe. I felt pretty good about that part, and since I passed, it was fine, though not great.

The teaching segment is where I saw the most variance across instructors. Things that I saw:

  1. Teaching to the candidates as if they were students; ie teaching the group how to do a wedge turn rather than teaching them how to be better at *teaching wedge turns*.
  2. Teaching inefficient movements not currently I the PSIA approach
  3. Not following the PSIA teaching cycle. Because of the nature of exam, you can’t really do “Assess Student and their movements” and “Define goals and plan experiences”, but you should be doing the rest of them. It was common for instructors to only teach the “Guide practice” part. Notably, “present and share information” and “check for understanding” were absent
  4. Not having a specific goal. The things you teach are in service of this goal.

I’ll probably write about the teaching side in more depth in the future.

The compare and contrast sessions were interesting; we were split into two group (team ski/snow interaction, team body), and each group watched examiners ski, discussed what they saw as a group, and then shared it with the examiners and the other group. I found this part to be relatively simple, but I’ve worked a lot on MA recently. We saw three things:

  1. Medium radius turns by two examiners, one with banking, one with angulation.
  2. Wedge christie turns, one generating the wedge by pushing out the tails and holding a high edge angle, the other generating wedge through rotation of the outside ski and skiing a flatter turn. This one generated quite a bit of discussion as the candidates did not agree.
  3. Medium radius turns done three ways; with retraction, with extension, and with big leg/little leg. We had to figure out the order. I was on team body, and we agreed right away, but those on team ski had three different interpretations of the order.

My big advice on doing the MA part is to do the part that you are assigned but still look at the whole body and ski/snow interaction as the followup questions will be in more detail.

We did not get to the 5 minute teaching.

Eric complains about the process

First off, my results (fail skiing / pass teaching) were a fair evaluation of my performance. I did not ski well enough to meet the bar.

I have two areas of complaint, and the come under the “not being set up to succeed” heading.

The first is in the preparation phase. I’ve looked at what PSIA-RM and PSIA-E require for their level 2 candidates, and it is has a lot more structure and waypoints. For example, PSIA-East requires that you get your CS1 (Children’s specialist 1) certification before for you go for level 2, which sounds like a very good idea to me.  PSIA-Rocky Mountain requires that you have a level 2 proficiency log, which would help to address the key concern of the candidates I talked with, which is their lack of understanding of what the level 2 skiing standards are. I am not looking for assurances that I will pass, but what I would like is for somebody to have said, “based on my understanding of the standard, I think your performance today meets/does not meet the level 2 standard” in a specific area.

Keeping this a mystery does not benefit anybody; what it means is that a lot of candidates are going to be disappointed. The pass rate in skiing for my group was less than 50%, and I’m sure the majority that failed would have preferred spending their time in a different way.

The second part is the actual examination. If PSIA-NW had more structure in preparation, this becomes less important, but I don’t understand the “no feedback” rule during the examination. Time constraints prevent extensive feedback, but you could easily do something like this:

  1. Candidates ski medium radius turns
  2. Examiners write down notes on their performance (they do this anyway)
  3. Examiners share observations relevant to their performance with respect to the standard (“Eric, you are skidding your turns rather than carving your turns”, “Steve, your center of mass is behind your base of support”).
  4. The rest of the exam day proceeds as it does now.

This gives the candidates a way to calibrate against the standard. As it was, I missed something I could have corrected if I was only told.

Looking at how other regions do exams, RM separates motion analysis from teaching as a separate module, and east breaks both teaching and skiing assessments into 3 separate parts, where you get credit for what you passed. This is a far better approach than the “all or nothing” approach that NW takes.

A couple of small points:

  1. At the end, the examiners hand out a score sheet with written notes and your pass/fail grade, then make themselves available either to congratulate you and hand out your certificate and pin, or discuss why you didn’t pass. If you did not pass, this is your chance to get more insight than the written notes. For some reason, the examiners do this without any notes of their own, which means that you really aren’t getting the insight that you could be getting.

  2. A group of candidates had a discussion about one of the task videos on the PSIA-NW site for level 2 skiing, and we were told that it was an old video and was out of date. This is really unacceptable; examiners get together to clinic several times, and it’s really cheap to grab video from them at the time. The lack of quality videos exacerbates the “I don’t know the standard” problem.

In summary, I did not think that PSIA-NW served me well as a member during the certification process. A little bit more structure would help the learning structure considerably.