Experts may differ on how to define it, how to get it, and what exactly it looks like. But they all agree on one point. A nurse can’t be successful without it.
Critical thinking is a must-have skill in today’s fast-paced, high-stakes nursing environment. Illustrating just how essential it is is a common phrase used often to describe it: thinking like a nurse.
“Without even being aware of it half the time, nurses critically think their way through every day,” writes Jennifer Olin, BSN, RN, on RN Central. “The thinking process that guides nursing practice must be organized, purposeful and disciplined because nursing decisions often profoundly affect their patients' lives.”
Olin goes on to describe a handful of aspects that describe critical thinking, such as reasonable, rational, reflective, autonomous, fair, creative and inquiry-driven.
“Critical thinking is used to decide on a course of action; make reliable observations; draw sound conclusions, solve problems; and evaluate policies, claims, and actions,” she explains. “It is that decision to call the physician even though it's the middle of the night or the decision to put aside charting for a while and sit with a patient who is anxious.
“Critical thinking isn't new to nursing, but it never gets old.”
For nursing students, critical thinking can be difficult to grasp, let alone master.
“The concept can be a nightmare for some nursing students who struggle to understand,” observed Kathy Quan, BSN, RN, PHN, on Nursing Link. “It’s a popular topic for many a nursing thesis or publication, which many times only serves to further confuse the students.”
Critical thinking often comes naturally through experience and real-world practice. That doesn’t mean, however, that educators can afford to ignore their important job of instilling it as early as they can. Through planning and perseverance, nurse educators can help stir and develop critical-thinking skills in their students.
One way to promote critical thinking is through exam content. Questions that include several “right” answers and, among them, one that shines as “the most right” for a particular clinical situation can prepare nursing students to think like a nurse.
“This may sound confusing,” explained an article geared to nursing students on the Rasmussen College School of Nursing blog, “but it is intentionally done in order to help prepare you for real-life nursing scenarios. You will often find yourself in situations where there are few ‘correct’ forms of care, but one that is most appropriate.”
A study in the journal Nurse Educator mentioned other strategies proven to developing clinical critical thinking:
The study took it a step further, however, and asked 134 nursing students from four universities what teaching and learning strategies they felt were most helpful in spurring their ability to think critically. They pinpointed three standouts:
“However, no strategy was perceived as more important from the data than the desire for ‘more clinical time and experience,’” reported author Pam Di Vito-Thomas, PhD, RN.
“The challenge for faculty is identifying appropriate clinical facilities despite the challenges often encountered in the evolving healthcare environment. Hence, seeking out exemplary direct-care nursing role models who actively demonstrate their critical-thinking processes is paramount for nursing students at all levels on learning how to ‘think like a nurse.’"
Online learning modules and nursing simulations have been shown to enhance the development of critical thinking in nursing students and recent grads. The Lippincott Professional Development Collection includes a library of over 350 online, evidence-based courses in 38 subject areas, and features robust multimedia instructions, pre- and post-tests, and real-life scenarios that are designed to increase clinical competency and improve patient outcomes.