5 Ways to Improve Critical Thinking in Nursing

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Written by Marie Hasty, BSN, RN Content Writer, IntelyCare
A man uses critical thinking in nursing.

Want to get better at critical thinking? In nursing, this mental skill is essential for analyzing clinical situations, solving problems, and making informed decisions. Being a critical thinker helps you give safe, efficient, and skillful nursing care. But sharpening your critical thinking skills isn’t just a personal quest for improvement; it’s a professional necessity.

Critical thinking is an essential skill for every member of the healthcare team. As a nurse and life-long learner, you have the power to strengthen your skills and build your confidence as a clinician. Whether you’re a new or experienced nurse, you can keep building this skill in any area of nursing.

What Is Critical Thinking in Nursing?

The definition of critical thinking is the practice of applying reason and questioning assumptions to solve problems. But it’s different from problem-solving and clinical reasoning — it’s a separate strategy that focuses on asking questions and critiquing solutions. While you’ll use critical thinking to understand what’s going on with a patient, this technique can also be used to improve your logical reasoning and communication skills outside of work.

Critical thinking is also different from didactic learning, where you take in information at face value. Instead, it is an active process that involves perception, analysis, synthesizing information, and evaluating what you’ve learned.

You probably remember your instructors talking about critical thinking in nursing school, and you built a foundation for this skill through simulations, peer learning, and clinical test questions. But remember that you can keep improving this skill throughout your career, for the rest of your life.

Why Is Critical Thinking Important in Nursing?

Medical problems and their solutions are complex. Without critical thinking, clinicians might miss essential data, and patient’s lives and outcomes may hang in the balance. Using critical thinking in nursing practice helps clinicians see problems from every angle, with an understanding that there might not be a perfect solution.

For example, a nurse who is thinking critically will hold a patient’s routine hypertension medicine if their blood pressure is high and ask the provider for clarification. A nurse who isn’t thinking critically might take the medication order at face value, not considering that a patient’s status may change. No matter what specialty you work in, whether you’re in post-acute or acute care, growing your critical thinking skills will make you a better nurse.

5 Ways to Improve Your Critical Thinking Skills

Looking for ways to improve your nursing skill set? Here’s how to improve critical thinking in nursing practice.

1. Ask Questions (Even If You’re Experienced)

Working in medicine means that you’re always learning, and asking questions helps you take advantage of opportunities to build your clinical thinking. Even seasoned nurses don’t know everything, and new research and innovations mean that medicine is changing constantly. Plus, asking questions can help you understand how different clinicians understand patient problems, yielding new insights and perspectives.

Asking questions amongst coworkers can feel nerve-racking because you might worry that your questions sound stupid. You might wonder if you should already know the answer. But chances are, someone else has had the same question as you, and everyone on the medical team is learning all the time.

Next time you’re not sure why a patient is receiving a medication or you wonder if a different intervention would be appropriate, speak up. Ask an experienced mentor or coworker, or even the medical team if it’s appropriate. You might learn something new and build your critical thinking skills in the process.

2. Reflect on Each Shift

Another way you can learn more from each shift is to spend some time intentionally thinking about your patients, your clinical decisions, and their outcomes. Debriefing after your shift gives you the space to reflect on what happened, so you can integrate new information to carry on to your next shift. In addition, debriefing after simulation has been shown to improve critical thinking in student nurses.

This doesn’t have to take much time. At the end of your next shift, you might take five minutes to think about these questions, or even write down your answers:

  1. What went well on this shift?
  2. What felt difficult on this shift?
  3. What could I have done differently?
  4. What was I unsure about on this shift?

If questions come up that you couldn’t get answered during your shift, seek answers online, or write down these questions to ask when you’re back at work. Taking a moment to intentionally debrief helps you gain lessons from every nursing shift, strengthening your critical thinking muscle.

3. Understand Your Biases and Assumptions

Practicing medicine means that you’re often guided by educated assumptions. For example, when you see a first-time pregnant patient come in for birth, you might assume based on your clinical experience that they’ll give birth relatively quickly. Making logical conclusions based on your clinical experiences can help you anticipate patient needs. But when you rely too heavily on assumptions over data, you can miss key information.

Implicit bias is another way that clinicians may miss what’s right in front of them because of assumptions. Nurses might form these biases based on societal trends and personal experiences, and they might be negative or positive. Everyone carries these unconscious biases, but in the clinical setting, they can impede care and put patients at risk.

To understand your biases, you could take an implicit bias test. Knowing where you hold positive and negative biases can help you think critically about them when you care for those types of patients.

4. Listen to Nursing Podcasts

Another way to boost your critical thinking in nursing is to learn from experts when you’re off the job. There are dozens of free resources for clinicians, where you can learn about real-world clinical scenarios and build your critical thinking skills. Whether you work in obstetrics, med-surg, pediatrics, or operating room nursing, you’ll likely find a podcast or video series that you can learn from.

The next time you’re washing dishes, taking a walk, or driving somewhere, check out a nursing podcast in your specialty. Over time, you’ll probably find yourself referring back to episode insights during your nursing shifts.

5. Use the Nursing Process

If you’re needing a framework for how to approach critical thinking, the nursing process is a tried-and-true method. You probably became familiar with this process during nursing school. Here are the steps:

  1. Assessment: Collect and analyze patient data to recognize issues and patterns, enhancing your observational and analytical skills.
  2. Diagnosis: Interpret data to identify clinical problems, prioritize needs, and formulate nursing diagnoses, refining critical thinking abilities.
  3. Planning: Develop tailored care plans based on patient needs and evidence-based practices, requiring analytical and decision-making skills.
  4. Implementation: Execute care plans, adapting interventions based on assessments and patient responses, promoting problem-solving skills.
  5. Evaluation: Assess intervention effectiveness, analyze outcomes, and modify plans as needed, honing reflective and analytical thinking.

Thinking Critically About Your Next Career Change?

Ready to improve your critical thinking? In nursing, every shift is a chance to learn. If you’re looking for a new opportunity, sign up for IntelyCare’s job notifications.