The nursing profession tends to attract those who have natural nurturing abilities, a desire to help others and a knack for science or anatomy. But there is another important skill that successful nurses share and it’s often over-looked: the ability to think critically.
Identifying a problem, determining the best solution and choosing the most effective method are all parts of the critical thinking process. After executing the plan, critical thinkers reflect on the situation to figure out if it was effective and if it could have been done better. As you can see, critical thinking is a transferable skill that can be leveraged in several facets of your life.
But why is it so important for nurses to use? We spoke with several experts to learn why critical thinking skills in nursing are so crucial to the field, the patients and the success of a nurse. Keep reading to learn why and to see how you can improve this skill.
Why are critical thinking skills in nursing important?
You learn all sorts of practical skills in nursing school, like flawlessly dressing a wound, taking vitals like a pro or giving an IV without flinching. But without the ability to think clearly and make rational decisions, those skills alone won’t get you very far—you need to think critically as well.
“Nurses are faced with decision-making situations in patient care, and each decision they make impacts patient outcomes. Nursing critical thinking skills drive the decision-making process and impact the quality of care provided,” says Georgia Vest, DNP, RN and senior dean of nursing at Rasmussen College School of Nursing.
Critical thinking is embedded in a nurse’s everyday routine. They flex this mental muscle each day they enter the floor. When you’re faced with decisions that could ultimately mean life or death, the ability to analyze a situation and come to a solution separates the good nurses from the great ones.
How are critical-thinking skills acquired in nursing school?
Nursing school offers a multitude of material to master and high expectations for your performance. But in order to learn in a way that will actually equip you to become an excellent nurse, you have to go beyond just memorizing terms. You need to apply an analytical mindset to understanding course material.
One way for students to begin implementing critical thinking is by applying the nursing process to their line of thought, according to Vest. The process includes five steps: assessment, diagnosis, outcomes/planning, implementation and evaluation.
“One of the fundamental principles for developing critical thinking is the nursing process,” Vest says. “It needs to be a lived experience in the learning environment.”
Nursing students often find that there are multiple correct solutions to a problem. The key to nursing is to select the “the most correct” solution—one that will be the most efficient and best fit for that particular situation. You will often find yourself in situations where there are few “correct” forms of care, but one that is most appropriate. Using the nursing process, students can narrow down their options to select the best one.
When answering questions in class or on exams, challenge yourself to go beyond simply selecting an answer. Start to think about why that answer is correct and what the possible consequences might be. Simply memorizing the material won’t translate well into a real-life nursing setting.
How can you develop your critical thinking skills?
As you know, learning doesn’t stop with graduation from nursing school. Good nurses continue to soak up knowledge and continually improve throughout their careers. Likewise, they can continue to build their critical thinking skills in the workplace with each shift.
“To improve your critical thinking, pick the brains of the experienced nurses around you to help you get the mindset,” suggests Eileen Sollars, RN ADN, AAS. Understanding how a seasoned nurse came to a conclusion will provide you with insights you may not have considered and help you develop your own approach.
The chain of command can also help nurses develop critical thinking skills in the workplace.
“Another aid in the development of critical thinking I cannot stress enough is the utilization of the chain of command,” Vest says. “In the chain of command, the nurse always reports up to the nurse manager and down to the patient care aide. Peers and fellow healthcare professionals are not in the chain of command. Clear understanding and proper utilization of the chain of command is essential in the workplace.”
How are critical thinking skills applied in nursing?
“Nurses use critical thinking in every single shift,” Sollars says. “Critical thinking in nursing is a paramount skill necessary in the care of your patients. Nowadays there is more emphasis on machines and technical aspects of nursing, but critical thinking plays an important role. You need it to understand and anticipate changes in your patient's condition.”
As a nurse, you will inevitably encounter a situation in which there are multiple solutions or treatments and you’ll be tasked with determining the solution that will provide the best possible outcome for your patient. You must be able to quickly and confidently assess situations and make the best care decision in each unique scenario. It is in situations like these that your critical thinking skills will direct your decision making.
You’re now well aware of the importance of critical thinking skills in nursing. Even if you wouldn’t consider yourself a high-caliber critical thinker today, you can work toward strengthening that skill. The more you practice it, the better you will become and the more naturally it will come to you.
Critical thinking isn’t the only component that makes an effective nurse. Learn about how else you can position yourself to climb the ranks in your nursing career in our article, "Nursing Career Advancement: 7 Ways to Stand Out in Your Scrubs."
*This article was originally published in July 2012. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2017.
To become a professional nurse requires that you learn to think like a nurse. What makes the thinking of a nurse different from a doctor, a dentist or an engineer? It is how we view the client and the type of problems we deal with in practice when we engage in client care. To think like a nurse requires that we learn the content of nursing; the ideas, concepts and theories of nursing and develop our intellectual capacities and skills so that we become disciplined, self-directed, critical thinkers.
Critical thinking is the disciplined, intellectual process of applying skilful reasoning as a guide to belief or action (Paul, Ennis & Norris). In nursing, critical thinking for clinical decision-making is the ability to think in a systematic and logical manner with openness to question and reflect on the reasoning process used to ensure safe nursing practice and quality care (Heaslip). Critical thinking when developed in the practitioner includes adherence to intellectual standards, proficiency in using reasoning, a commitment to develop and maintain intellectual traits of the mind and habits of thought and the competent use of thinking skills and abilities for sound clinical judgments and safe decision-making.
Intellectual Standards for Reasoning
Practitioners in nursing who are critical thinkers value and adhere to intellectual standards. Critical thinkers strive to be clear, accurate, precise, logical complete, significant and fair when they listen, speak, read and write. Critical thinkers think deeply and broadly. Their thinking is adequate for their intended purpose (Paul, Scriven, Norris & Ennis). All thinking can be examined in light of these standards and as we reflect on the quality of our thinking we begin to recognize when we are being unclear, imprecise, vague or inaccurate. As nurses, we want to eliminate irrelevant, inconsistent and illogical thoughts as we reason about client care. Nurses use language to clearly communicate in-depth information that is significant to nursing care. Nurses are not focused on the trivial or irrelevant.
Nurses who are critical thinkers hold all their views and reasoning to these standards as well as, the claims of others such that the quality of nurse's thinking improves over time thus eliminating confusion and ambiguity in the presentation and understanding of thoughts and ideas.
Elements of Reasoned Thinking
Reasoning in nursing involves eight elements of thought. Critical thinking involves trying to figure out something; a problem, an issue, the views of another person, a theory or an idea. To figure things out we need to enter into the thinking of the other person and then to comprehend as best we can the structure of their thinking. This also applies to our own thinking as well. When I read an author I'm trying to figure out what the author is saying; what problem or issue the author is addressing, what point of view or frame of reference he is coming from, what the goal or purpose is of this piece of writing, what evidence, data or facts are being used and what theories, concepts, principles or ideas are involved. I want to understand the interpretations and claims the author is making and the assumptions that underlie his thinking. I need to be able to follow the author's lines of formulated thought and the inferences which lead to a particular conclusion. I need to understand the implications and consequences of the author's thinking. As I come to understand the author in-depth I will also begin to recognize the strength and weakness of his reasoning. I will be able to offer my perspective on the subject at hand with a clear understanding of how the author would respond to my ideas on the subject.
The Elements of Thought
All thinking, if it is purposeful, includes the following elements of thought (Paul, 1990).
- The problem, question, concern or issue being discussed or thought about by the thinker. What the thinker is attempting to figure out.
- The purpose or goal of the thinking. Why we are attempting to figure something out and to what end. What do we hope to accomplish.
- The frame of reference, points of view or even world view that we hold about the issue or problem.
- The assumptions that we hold to be true about the issue upon which we base our claims or beliefs.
- The central concepts, ideas, principles and theories that we use in reasoning about the problem.
- The evidence, data or information provided to support the claims we make about the issue or problem.
- The interpretations, inferences, reasoning, and lines of formulated thought that lead to our conclusions.
- The implications and consequences that follow from the positions we hold on the issue or problem.
When nurses reason they use these elements of thought to figure out difficult questions and recognize that their thinking could be flawed or limited by lack of in-depth understanding of the problem at issue therefore, they critically monitor their thinking to ensure that their thinking meets the standards for intellectual thought.
In summary, as a critical thinker, I am able to figure out by reading or listening critically what nurse scholars believe about nursing and on what basis nurses act as they practice nursing. To do this I must clearly comprehend the thinking of another person by figuring out the logic of their thinking. I must comprehend clearly the thinking of myself by figuring out my own thoughts on the subject at hand. Finally, I must use intellectual standards to evaluate my thinking and the thinking of others on a given problem such that I can come to a defensible, well reasoned view of the problem and therefore, know what to believe or do in a given circumstance. To do this I must be committed to developing my mind as a self-directed, independent critical thinker. I must value above all else the intellectual traits and habits of thought that critical thinkers possess.
Intellectual Traits and Habits of Thought
To develop as a critical thinker one must be motivated to develop the attitudes and dispositions of a fair-minded thinker. That is, one must be willing to suspend judgments until one truly understands another point of view and can articulate the position that another person holds on an issue. Nurses come to reasoned judgments so that they can act competently in practice. They continually monitor their thinking; questioning and reflecting on the quality of thinking occurring in how they reason about nursing practice. Sloppy, superficial thinking leads to poor practice.
Critical inquiry is an important quality for safe practice. Nurses must pose questions about practice and be willing to attempt to seek answers about practice. Nurses must be willing to attempt to seek answers to the difficult questions inherent in practice, as well as the obvious. Question posing presupposes intellectual humility and a willingness to admit to one's areas of ignorance as well as, intellectual curiosity and perseverance and willingness to seek answers. Critical thinkers in nursing are truth seekers and demonstrate open-mindedness and tolerance for others' views with constant sensitivity to the possibility of their own bias.
Nurse's who are critical thinkers value intellectually challenging situations and are self-confident in their well reasoned thoughts. To reason effectively, nurses have developed skills and abilities essential for sound reasoning.
Critical Thinking Skills and Abilities
Critical thinkers in nursing are skilful in applying intellectual skills for sound reasoning. These skills have been defined as information gathering, focusing, remembering, organizing, analyzing, generating, integrating and evaluating (Registered Nurse's Association of British Columbia, 1990). The focus of classroom and clinical activities is to develop the nurse's understanding of scholarly, academic work through the effective use of intellectual abilities and skills. As you encounter increasingly more complex practice situations you will be required to think through and reason about nursing in greater depth and draw on deeper, more sophisticated comprehension of what it means to be a nurse in clinical practice. Nursing is never a superficial, meaningless activity. All acts in nursing are deeply significant and require of the nurse a mind fully engaged in the practice of nursing. This is the challenge of nursing; critical, reflective practice based on the sound reasoning of intelligent minds committed to safe, effective client care.
To accomplish this goal, students will be required to reason about nursing by reading, writing, listening and speaking critically. By doing so you will be thinking critically about nursing and ensuring that you gain in-depth knowledge about nursing as a practice profession.
Critical Thinking...a Holistic Approach
Critical Listening: A mode of monitoring how we are listening so as to maximize our accurate understanding of what another person is saying. By understanding the logic of human communication - that everything spoken expresses point of view, uses some ideas and not others, has implications, etc., critical thinkers can listen so as to enter empathetically and analytically into the perspective of others.
Critical Thinking: 1) Disciplined, self-directed thinking which implies the perfection of thinking appropriate to a particular mode or domain of thinking. 2) Thinking that displays master of intellectual skills and abilities. 3) The art of thinking about your thinking while you are thinking in order to make your thinking better: more clear, more accurate, or more defensible.
Critical Writing: To express oneself in languages required that one arrange ideas in some relationships to each other. When accuracy and truth are at issue, then we must understand what our thesis is, how we can support it, how we can elaborate it to make it intelligible to others, what objections can be raised to it from other points of view, what the limitations are to our point of view, and so forth. Disciplined writing requires disciplined thinking; disciplined thinking is achieved through disciplined writing.
Critical Reading: Critical reading is an active, intellectually engaged process in which the reader participates in an inner dialogue with the writer. Most people read uncritically and so miss some part of what is expressed while distorting other parts. A critical reader realizes the way in which reading, by its very nature, means entering into a point of view other than our own, the point of view of the writer. A critical reader actively looks for assumptions, key concepts and ideas, reasons and justifications, supporting examples, parallel experiences, implications and consequences, and any other structural features of the written text to interpret and assess it accurately and fairly. ( Paul, 1990, pp 554 & 545 )
Critical Speaking: Critical speaking is an active process of expressing verbally a point of view, ideas and thoughts such that others attain an in-depth understanding of the speaker's personal perspective on an issue. Monitoring how we express ourselves verbally will ensure that we maximize accurate understanding of what we mean through active dialogue and openness to feedback on our views. (Heaslip, 1993).
Paul, R.W. (1990). Critical Thinking: What Every Person Needs to Survive in a Rapidly Changing World. Rohnert Park, California: Center for Critical Thinking and Moral Critique
Norris, S. P. & Ennis, R.H. (1989). Evaluating critical thinking. Pacific Grove, CA: Midwest Publications, Critical Thinking Press