What is Critical Thinking in Nursing? (With Examples, Importance, & How to Improve)

how to develop critical thinking as a nurse

Successful nursing requires learning several skills used to communicate with patients, families, and healthcare teams. One of the most essential skills nurses must develop is the ability to demonstrate critical thinking. If you are a nurse, perhaps you have asked if there is a way to know how to improve critical thinking in nursing? As you read this article, you will learn what critical thinking in nursing is and why it is important. You will also find 18 simple tips to improve critical thinking in nursing and sample scenarios about how to apply critical thinking in your nursing career.

What Is Critical Thinking In Nursing?

4 reasons why critical thinking is so important in nursing, 1. critical thinking skills will help you anticipate and understand changes in your patient’s condition., 2. with strong critical thinking skills, you can make decisions about patient care that is most favorable for the patient and intended outcomes., 3. strong critical thinking skills in nursing can contribute to innovative improvements and professional development., 4. critical thinking skills in nursing contribute to rational decision-making, which improves patient outcomes., what are the 8 important attributes of excellent critical thinking in nursing, 1. the ability to interpret information:, 2. independent thought:, 3. impartiality:, 4. intuition:, 5. problem solving:, 6. flexibility:, 7. perseverance:, 8. integrity:, examples of poor critical thinking vs excellent critical thinking in nursing, 1. scenario: patient/caregiver interactions, poor critical thinking:, excellent critical thinking:, 2. scenario: improving patient care quality, 3. scenario: interdisciplinary collaboration, 4. scenario: precepting nursing students and other nurses, how to improve critical thinking in nursing, 1. demonstrate open-mindedness., 2. practice self-awareness., 3. avoid judgment., 4. eliminate personal biases., 5. do not be afraid to ask questions., 6. find an experienced mentor., 7. join professional nursing organizations., 8. establish a routine of self-reflection., 9. utilize the chain of command., 10. determine the significance of data and decide if it is sufficient for decision-making., 11. volunteer for leadership positions or opportunities., 12. use previous facts and experiences to help develop stronger critical thinking skills in nursing., 13. establish priorities., 14. trust your knowledge and be confident in your abilities., 15. be curious about everything., 16. practice fair-mindedness., 17. learn the value of intellectual humility., 18. never stop learning., 4 consequences of poor critical thinking in nursing, 1. the most significant risk associated with poor critical thinking in nursing is inadequate patient care., 2. failure to recognize changes in patient status:, 3. lack of effective critical thinking in nursing can impact the cost of healthcare., 4. lack of critical thinking skills in nursing can cause a breakdown in communication within the interdisciplinary team., useful resources to improve critical thinking in nursing, youtube videos, my final thoughts, frequently asked questions answered by our expert, 1. will lack of critical thinking impact my nursing career, 2. usually, how long does it take for a nurse to improve their critical thinking skills, 3. do all types of nurses require excellent critical thinking skills, 4. how can i assess my critical thinking skills in nursing.

• Ask relevant questions • Justify opinions • Address and evaluate multiple points of view • Explain assumptions and reasons related to your choice of patient care options

5. Can I Be a Nurse If I Cannot Think Critically?

how to develop critical thinking as a nurse

The Value of Critical Thinking in Nursing

Gayle Morris, BSN, MSN

  • How Nurses Use Critical Thinking
  • How to Improve Critical Thinking
  • Common Mistakes

Male nurse checking on a patient

Some experts describe a person’s ability to question belief systems, test previously held assumptions, and recognize ambiguity as evidence of critical thinking. Others identify specific skills that demonstrate critical thinking, such as the ability to identify problems and biases, infer and draw conclusions, and determine the relevance of information to a situation.

Nicholas McGowan, BSN, RN, CCRN, has been a critical care nurse for 10 years in neurological trauma nursing and cardiovascular and surgical intensive care. He defines critical thinking as “necessary for problem-solving and decision-making by healthcare providers. It is a process where people use a logical process to gather information and take purposeful action based on their evaluation.”

“This cognitive process is vital for excellent patient outcomes because it requires that nurses make clinical decisions utilizing a variety of different lenses, such as fairness, ethics, and evidence-based practice,” he says.

How Do Nurses Use Critical Thinking?

Successful nurses think beyond their assigned tasks to deliver excellent care for their patients. For example, a nurse might be tasked with changing a wound dressing, delivering medications, and monitoring vital signs during a shift. However, it requires critical thinking skills to understand how a difference in the wound may affect blood pressure and temperature and when those changes may require immediate medical intervention.

Nurses care for many patients during their shifts. Strong critical thinking skills are crucial when juggling various tasks so patient safety and care are not compromised.

Jenna Liphart Rhoads, Ph.D., RN, is a nurse educator with a clinical background in surgical-trauma adult critical care, where critical thinking and action were essential to the safety of her patients. She talks about examples of critical thinking in a healthcare environment, saying:

“Nurses must also critically think to determine which patient to see first, which medications to pass first, and the order in which to organize their day caring for patients. Patient conditions and environments are continually in flux, therefore nurses must constantly be evaluating and re-evaluating information they gather (assess) to keep their patients safe.”

The COVID-19 pandemic created hospital care situations where critical thinking was essential. It was expected of the nurses on the general floor and in intensive care units. Crystal Slaughter is an advanced practice nurse in the intensive care unit (ICU) and a nurse educator. She observed critical thinking throughout the pandemic as she watched intensive care nurses test the boundaries of previously held beliefs and master providing excellent care while preserving resources.

“Nurses are at the patient’s bedside and are often the first ones to detect issues. Then, the nurse needs to gather the appropriate subjective and objective data from the patient in order to frame a concise problem statement or question for the physician or advanced practice provider,” she explains.

Top 5 Ways Nurses Can Improve Critical Thinking Skills

We asked our experts for the top five strategies nurses can use to purposefully improve their critical thinking skills.

Case-Based Approach

Slaughter is a fan of the case-based approach to learning critical thinking skills.

In much the same way a detective would approach a mystery, she mentors her students to ask questions about the situation that help determine the information they have and the information they need. “What is going on? What information am I missing? Can I get that information? What does that information mean for the patient? How quickly do I need to act?”

Consider forming a group and working with a mentor who can guide you through case studies. This provides you with a learner-centered environment in which you can analyze data to reach conclusions and develop communication, analytical, and collaborative skills with your colleagues.

Practice Self-Reflection

Rhoads is an advocate for self-reflection. “Nurses should reflect upon what went well or did not go well in their workday and identify areas of improvement or situations in which they should have reached out for help.” Self-reflection is a form of personal analysis to observe and evaluate situations and how you responded.

This gives you the opportunity to discover mistakes you may have made and to establish new behavior patterns that may help you make better decisions. You likely already do this. For example, after a disagreement or contentious meeting, you may go over the conversation in your head and think about ways you could have responded.

It’s important to go through the decisions you made during your day and determine if you should have gotten more information before acting or if you could have asked better questions.

During self-reflection, you may try thinking about the problem in reverse. This may not give you an immediate answer, but can help you see the situation with fresh eyes and a new perspective. How would the outcome of the day be different if you planned the dressing change in reverse with the assumption you would find a wound infection? How does this information change your plan for the next dressing change?

Develop a Questioning Mind

McGowan has learned that “critical thinking is a self-driven process. It isn’t something that can simply be taught. Rather, it is something that you practice and cultivate with experience. To develop critical thinking skills, you have to be curious and inquisitive.”

To gain critical thinking skills, you must undergo a purposeful process of learning strategies and using them consistently so they become a habit. One of those strategies is developing a questioning mind. Meaningful questions lead to useful answers and are at the core of critical thinking .

However, learning to ask insightful questions is a skill you must develop. Faced with staff and nursing shortages , declining patient conditions, and a rising number of tasks to be completed, it may be difficult to do more than finish the task in front of you. Yet, questions drive active learning and train your brain to see the world differently and take nothing for granted.

It is easier to practice questioning in a non-stressful, quiet environment until it becomes a habit. Then, in the moment when your patient’s care depends on your ability to ask the right questions, you can be ready to rise to the occasion.

Practice Self-Awareness in the Moment

Critical thinking in nursing requires self-awareness and being present in the moment. During a hectic shift, it is easy to lose focus as you struggle to finish every task needed for your patients. Passing medication, changing dressings, and hanging intravenous lines all while trying to assess your patient’s mental and emotional status can affect your focus and how you manage stress as a nurse .

Staying present helps you to be proactive in your thinking and anticipate what might happen, such as bringing extra lubricant for a catheterization or extra gloves for a dressing change.

By staying present, you are also better able to practice active listening. This raises your assessment skills and gives you more information as a basis for your interventions and decisions.

Use a Process

As you are developing critical thinking skills, it can be helpful to use a process. For example:

  • Ask questions.
  • Gather information.
  • Implement a strategy.
  • Evaluate the results.
  • Consider another point of view.

These are the fundamental steps of the nursing process (assess, diagnose, plan, implement, evaluate). The last step will help you overcome one of the common problems of critical thinking in nursing — personal bias.

Common Critical Thinking Pitfalls in Nursing

Your brain uses a set of processes to make inferences about what’s happening around you. In some cases, your unreliable biases can lead you down the wrong path. McGowan places personal biases at the top of his list of common pitfalls to critical thinking in nursing.

“We all form biases based on our own experiences. However, nurses have to learn to separate their own biases from each patient encounter to avoid making false assumptions that may interfere with their care,” he says. Successful critical thinkers accept they have personal biases and learn to look out for them. Awareness of your biases is the first step to understanding if your personal bias is contributing to the wrong decision.

New nurses may be overwhelmed by the transition from academics to clinical practice, leading to a task-oriented mindset and a common new nurse mistake ; this conflicts with critical thinking skills.

“Consider a patient whose blood pressure is low but who also needs to take a blood pressure medication at a scheduled time. A task-oriented nurse may provide the medication without regard for the patient’s blood pressure because medication administration is a task that must be completed,” Slaughter says. “A nurse employing critical thinking skills would address the low blood pressure, review the patient’s blood pressure history and trends, and potentially call the physician to discuss whether medication should be withheld.”

Fear and pride may also stand in the way of developing critical thinking skills. Your belief system and worldview provide comfort and guidance, but this can impede your judgment when you are faced with an individual whose belief system or cultural practices are not the same as yours. Fear or pride may prevent you from pursuing a line of questioning that would benefit the patient. Nurses with strong critical thinking skills exhibit:

  • Learn from their mistakes and the mistakes of other nurses
  • Look forward to integrating changes that improve patient care
  • Treat each patient interaction as a part of a whole
  • Evaluate new events based on past knowledge and adjust decision-making as needed
  • Solve problems with their colleagues
  • Are self-confident
  • Acknowledge biases and seek to ensure these do not impact patient care

An Essential Skill for All Nurses

Critical thinking in nursing protects patient health and contributes to professional development and career advancement. Administrative and clinical nursing leaders are required to have strong critical thinking skills to be successful in their positions.

By using the strategies in this guide during your daily life and in your nursing role, you can intentionally improve your critical thinking abilities and be rewarded with better patient outcomes and potential career advancement.

Frequently Asked Questions About Critical Thinking in Nursing

How are critical thinking skills utilized in nursing practice.

Nursing practice utilizes critical thinking skills to provide the best care for patients. Often, the patient’s cause of pain or health issue is not immediately clear. Nursing professionals need to use their knowledge to determine what might be causing distress, collect vital information, and make quick decisions on how best to handle the situation.

How does nursing school develop critical thinking skills?

Nursing school gives students the knowledge professional nurses use to make important healthcare decisions for their patients. Students learn about diseases, anatomy, and physiology, and how to improve the patient’s overall well-being. Learners also participate in supervised clinical experiences, where they practice using their critical thinking skills to make decisions in professional settings.

Do only nurse managers use critical thinking?

Nurse managers certainly use critical thinking skills in their daily duties. But when working in a health setting, anyone giving care to patients uses their critical thinking skills. Everyone — including licensed practical nurses, registered nurses, and advanced nurse practitioners —needs to flex their critical thinking skills to make potentially life-saving decisions.

Meet Our Contributors

Portrait of Crystal Slaughter, DNP, APRN, ACNS-BC, CNE

Crystal Slaughter, DNP, APRN, ACNS-BC, CNE

Crystal Slaughter is a core faculty member in Walden University’s RN-to-BSN program. She has worked as an advanced practice registered nurse with an intensivist/pulmonary service to provide care to hospitalized ICU patients and in inpatient palliative care. Slaughter’s clinical interests lie in nursing education and evidence-based practice initiatives to promote improving patient care.

Portrait of Jenna Liphart Rhoads, Ph.D., RN

Jenna Liphart Rhoads, Ph.D., RN

Jenna Liphart Rhoads is a nurse educator and freelance author and editor. She earned a BSN from Saint Francis Medical Center College of Nursing and an MS in nursing education from Northern Illinois University. Rhoads earned a Ph.D. in education with a concentration in nursing education from Capella University where she researched the moderation effects of emotional intelligence on the relationship of stress and GPA in military veteran nursing students. Her clinical background includes surgical-trauma adult critical care, interventional radiology procedures, and conscious sedation in adult and pediatric populations.

Portrait of Nicholas McGowan, BSN, RN, CCRN

Nicholas McGowan, BSN, RN, CCRN

Nicholas McGowan is a critical care nurse with 10 years of experience in cardiovascular, surgical intensive care, and neurological trauma nursing. McGowan also has a background in education, leadership, and public speaking. He is an online learner who builds on his foundation of critical care nursing, which he uses directly at the bedside where he still practices. In addition, McGowan hosts an online course at Critical Care Academy where he helps nurses achieve critical care (CCRN) certification.


How To Improve Critical Thinking Skills In Nursing? 24 Strategies With Examples


Last updated on August 19th, 2023

Nurses play a critical role in making critical decisions that directly impact patient outcomes in the dynamic field of healthcare. Developing strong critical thinking skills is essential for success in this role.

In this article, we present a comprehensive list of 23 nursing-specific strategies aimed at improving critical thinking and improve the quality of patient care.

24 Strategies to improve critical thinking skills in nursing

You may also want to check out: 15 Attitudes of Critical Thinking in Nursing (Explained W/ Examples)

1. Reflective Journaling: Delving into Deeper Understanding

Reflective journaling is a potent tool for nurses to explore their experiences, actions, and decisions.

By regularly pondering over situations and analyzing their thought processes, nurses can identify strengths and areas for improvement.

This practice encourages the conscious development of critical thinking by comparing past experiences with current knowledge and exploring alternative solutions.

After a particularly challenging case, a nurse reflects on their decision-making process, exploring what worked well and what could have been done differently.

2. Meeting with Colleagues: Collaborative Learning for Critical Thinking

Regular interactions with colleagues foster a collaborative learning environment. Sharing experiences, discussing diverse viewpoints, and providing constructive feedback enhance critical thinking skills .

Colleagues’ insights can challenge assumptions and broaden perspectives, ultimately leading to more well-rounded clinical judgments.

A nursing team gathers to discuss a recent complex case, sharing their perspectives, insights, and lessons learned to collectively improve patient care strategies.

3. Concept Mapping: Visualizing Complexity

Concept mapping is an excellent technique to synthesize intricate patient information. By creating visual representations of patient problems and interventions, nurses can identify relationships and patterns that might not be apparent otherwise.

This strategy aids in comprehensive care planning and encourages nurses to think holistically about patient care.

Creating a concept map to connect patient symptoms, diagnostics, and interventions reveals patterns that help the nurse formulate a comprehensive care plan.

4. Socratic Questioning: Digging Deeper into Situations

The art of Socratic questioning involves asking probing questions that lead to deeper understanding.

Applying this technique allows nurses to uncover assumptions, examine inconsistencies, and explore multiple viewpoints.

This approach is especially valuable when reviewing patient history, discussing conditions, and planning care strategies.

When assessing a patient’s deteriorating condition, a nurse asks probing questions to uncover potential underlying causes and prioritize appropriate interventions.

5. Inductive and Deductive Reasoning: From Specifics to Generalizations

Developing skills in both inductive and deductive reasoning equips nurses to analyze situations from different angles.

Inductive reasoning involves drawing conclusions from specific observations, while deductive reasoning starts with general premises to arrive at specific conclusions.

Proficient use of these methods enhances nurses’ ability to make accurate clinical judgments.

When encountering a series of patients with similar symptoms, a nurse uses inductive reasoning to identify a common pattern and deduce potential causes.

6. Distinguishing Statements: Fact, Inference, Judgment, and Opinion

Clear thinking demands the ability to differentiate between statements of fact, inference, judgment, and opinion.

Nurses must critically evaluate information sources, ensuring they rely on evidence-based practice.

This skill safeguards against misinformation and supports informed decision-making.

While reviewing a patient’s history, a nurse differentiates factual medical information from inferences and subjective judgments made by different healthcare professionals.

7. Clarifying Assumptions: Promoting Effective Communication

Recognizing assumptions and clarifying their underlying principles is vital for effective communication. Nurses often hold differing assumptions, which can impact patient care.

By acknowledging these assumptions and encouraging open discussions, nursing teams can collaboratively create care plans that align with patients’ best interests.

Before suggesting a treatment plan, a nurse engages in a conversation with a patient to understand their cultural beliefs and preferences, ensuring assumptions are not made.

8. Clinical Simulations: Learning through Virtual Scenarios

Clinical simulations provide nurses with a risk-free environment to practice decision-making and problem-solving skills.

These virtual scenarios mimic real-life patient situations and allow nurses to test different approaches, assess outcomes, and reflect on their choices.

By engaging in simulations, nurses can refine their critical thinking abilities, learn from mistakes, and gain confidence in their clinical judgment.

Engaging in a simulated scenario where a patient’s condition rapidly changes challenges a nurse’s decision-making skills in a controlled environment.

9. Case Studies and Grand Rounds: Analyzing Complex Cases

Engaging in case studies and participating in grand rounds exposes nurses to complex patient cases that require in-depth analysis.

Working through these scenarios encourages nurses to consider various factors, potential interventions, and their rationale.

Discussing these cases with colleagues and experts fosters collaborative critical thinking and widens the spectrum of possible solutions.

Nurses participate in grand rounds, discussing a challenging case involving multiple medical specialties, encouraging a holistic approach to patient care.

10. Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning: Expanding Knowledge

Staying up-to-date with the latest advancements in nursing and healthcare is crucial for effective critical thinking.

Pursuing continuing education opportunities, attending conferences, and engaging in self-directed learning keeps nurses informed about new research, technologies, and best practices.

This continuous learning enriches their knowledge base, enabling them to approach patient care with a well-rounded perspective.

Attending a nursing conference on the latest advancements in wound care equips a nurse with evidence-based techniques to improve patient outcomes.

11. Debates and Discussions: Encouraging Thoughtful Dialogue

Organizing debates or participating in structured discussions on healthcare topics stimulates critical thinking.

Engaging in debates requires researching and presenting evidence-based arguments, promoting the evaluation of different perspectives.

Nurses can exchange insights, challenge assumptions, and refine their ability to defend their viewpoints logically.

Engaging in a debate on the pros and cons of a new treatment method encourages nurses to critically analyze different viewpoints and strengthen their own understanding.

12. Multidisciplinary Collaboration: Gaining Insights from Various Disciplines

Collaborating with professionals from diverse healthcare disciplines enriches nurses’ critical thinking.

Interacting with doctors, pharmacists, therapists, and other experts allows nurses to benefit from different viewpoints and approaches.

This cross-disciplinary collaboration broadens their understanding and encourages innovative problem-solving.

Collaborating with physical therapists, nutritionists, and pharmacists helps a nurse develop a holistic care plan that addresses all aspects of a patient’s recovery.

13. Ethical Dilemma Analysis: Balancing Patient Autonomy and Best Practice

Ethical dilemmas are common in nursing practice. Analyzing these situations requires nurses to weigh the principles of beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice.

By critically examining ethical scenarios, nurses develop the capacity to navigate morally complex situations, prioritize patient welfare, and make ethically sound decisions.

When faced with a patient’s refusal of treatment due to religious beliefs, a nurse evaluates the ethical considerations, respects autonomy, and seeks alternatives.

14. Root Cause Analysis: Investigating Adverse Events

When adverse events occur, performing a root cause analysis helps identify the underlying causes and contributing factors.

Nurses engage in a systematic process of analyzing events, exploring the “5 Whys” technique , and developing strategies to prevent similar occurrences in the future.

This approach cultivates a thorough and analytical approach to problem-solving.

After a medication error, a nurse leads a root cause analysis to identify system failures and implement preventive measures to enhance patient safety.

15. Creative Thinking Exercises: Expanding Solution Repertoire

Encouraging creative thinking through brainstorming sessions or scenario-based exercises widens the range of possible solutions nurses consider.

By thinking outside the box and exploring innovative approaches, nurses develop adaptable problem-solving skills that can be applied to complex patient care challenges.

Brainstorming creative approaches to comfort a distressed pediatric patient empowers a nurse to find innovative methods beyond routine interventions.

16. Journal Clubs: Fostering Evidence-Based Discussion

Participating in journal clubs involves healthcare professionals coming together to dissect recent research articles.

This practice ignites critical thinking by allowing nurses to evaluate study methodologies, scrutinize findings, and consider the implications for their practice.

Engaging in evidence-based discussions not only cultivates a culture of critical inquiry but also reinforces continuous learning.

At the monthly journal club meeting, Nurse Mark engages in a discussion on a recent research article focusing on pain management strategies for post-operative patients.

The group analyzes the study design, scrutinizes the findings, and considers the potential implications for their practice.

During the discussion, Mark raises thought-provoking questions about the study’s methodology and suggests potential applications in their hospital’s patient care protocols.

This active participation in journal clubs not only refines Mark’s critical thinking but also instills evidence-based practices into his nursing approach.

17. Critical Reflection Groups: Collaborative Learning and Analysis

Similarly, establishing critical reflection groups, where nurses meet regularly to discuss experiences, cases, and challenges, fosters collective learning.

These sessions encourage the exchange of diverse perspectives, enriching the analysis process and ultimately enhancing patient care strategies.

Through shared insights and discussions, nurses can refine their clinical reasoning and broaden their problem-solving capabilities.

Nurse Emma actively participates in critical reflection groups in order to broaden her clinical knowledge. During a recent meeting, the group tackled a difficult patient case with complicated symptomatology.

Emma suggests alternative diagnostic pathways based on her own experiences. Emma’s critical thinking skills are honed as a result of the group’s dynamic interaction, which also emphasizes the importance of collaborative decision-making in complex scenarios.

18. Mindfulness and Reflection Practices: Enhancing Self-Awareness

Mindfulness techniques, such as meditation and deep breathing, encourage self-awareness and a clear mind.

Engaging in these practices helps nurses become more attuned to their thoughts and emotions, leading to better self-regulation and improved decision-making during high-pressure situations.

Engaging in mindfulness exercises before a demanding shift helps a nurse maintain focus, manage stress, and make clear-headed decisions.

19. Problem-Based Learning: Applying Knowledge in Real Scenarios

Problem-based learning involves presenting nurses with real-world patient cases and encouraging them to collaboratively solve the problems.

This approach bridges the gap between theoretical knowledge and practical application, fostering critical thinking through active problem-solving.

Working through a simulated patient case challenges nurses to apply theoretical knowledge to practical situations, refining their clinical reasoning.

20. Self-Assessment and Feedback: Evaluating Decision-Making Skills

Regularly assessing one’s own decision-making process and seeking feedback from peers and mentors is essential for improvement.

Reflecting on past decisions, considering alternative approaches, and understanding the rationale behind them contribute to the refinement of critical thinking skills.

A nurse evaluates their performance after a patient’s unexpected complication, seeking feedback from peers and mentors to identify areas for improvement.

21. Cultural Competence Training: Navigating Diverse Perspectives

Cultural competence training enhances critical thinking by enabling nurses to understand the diverse cultural beliefs and practices of patients.

This knowledge is vital for providing patient-centered care, as it encourages nurses to think critically about the unique needs of each individual.

A nurse attends cultural competence training to understand the dietary preferences of a diverse patient population, ensuring respectful and patient-centered care.

22. Active Listening and Empathetic Communication: Gathering Insights

Active listening and empathetic communication with patients and their families enable nurses to gather comprehensive information about their conditions, concerns, and preferences.

This data forms the basis for critical analysis and informed decision-making in patient care.

Through attentive listening, a nurse uncovers a patient’s underlying concerns, leading to an informed care plan that addresses both medical needs and emotional well-being.

23. Mentorship and Preceptorship: Learning from Experienced Professionals

Having a mentor or preceptor provides novice nurses with the opportunity to learn from experienced professionals.

Mentors guide critical thinking by sharing their insights, challenging assumptions, and offering guidance in complex situations. This relationship fosters growth and expertise development.

A novice nurse gains valuable insight from a mentor, who guides them through complex cases, offering real-world wisdom and refining critical thinking skills.

24. Self-Assessment and Feedback: Evaluating Decision-Making Skills

Reflecting on past decisions, considering alternative approaches, and understanding the rationale behind them contribute to the refinement of critical thinking skills .

Nurse Sarah regularly takes time to assess her decision-making skills by reviewing past patient cases. After a challenging case involving conflicting symptoms, she reflects on her initial approach, the outcomes, and what she could have done differently.

She seeks feedback from her senior colleague, who provides insights on alternative diagnostic paths. Sarah’s self-assessment and feedback-seeking process enable her to identify areas for improvement and refine her critical thinking in similar situations.

  • Clinical Reasoning In Nursing (Explained W/ Example)
  • 8 Stages Of The Clinical Reasoning Cycle
  • What is Critical Thinking in Nursing? (Explained W/ Examples)

Enhancing critical thinking skills is an ongoing journey that transforms nursing practice.

Reflective journaling, collaborative learning, concept mapping, Socratic questioning , reasoning techniques, distinguishing statements, and clarifying assumptions all play integral roles in nurturing these skills.

By incorporating these strategies into their daily routines, nurses can improve their critical thinking skills.

Additionally, this will help nurses in navigating the complexities of the healthcare field with confidence, expertise, and the ability to make well-informed decisions that improve patient outcomes.

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how to develop critical thinking as a nurse

Critical Thinking in Nursing

  • First Online: 02 January 2023

Cite this chapter

how to develop critical thinking as a nurse

  • Şefika Dilek Güven 3  

Part of the book series: Integrated Science ((IS,volume 12))

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Critical thinking is an integral part of nursing, especially in terms of professionalization and independent clinical decision-making. It is necessary to think critically to provide adequate, creative, and effective nursing care when making the right decisions for practices and care in the clinical setting and solving various ethical issues encountered. Nurses should develop their critical thinking skills so that they can analyze the problems of the current century, keep up with new developments and changes, cope with nursing problems they encounter, identify more complex patient care needs, provide more systematic care, give the most appropriate patient care in line with the education they have received, and make clinical decisions. The present chapter briefly examines critical thinking, how it relates to nursing, and which skills nurses need to develop as critical thinkers.

Graphical Abstract/Art Performance

how to develop critical thinking as a nurse

Critical thinking in nursing.

This painting shows a nurse and how she is thinking critically. On the right side are the stages of critical thinking and on the left side, there are challenges that a nurse might face. The entire background is also painted in several colors to represent a kind of intellectual puzzle. It is made using colored pencils and markers.

(Adapted with permission from the Association of Science and Art (ASA), Universal Scientific Education and Research Network (USERN); Painting by Mahshad Naserpour).

Unless the individuals of a nation thinkers, the masses can be drawn in any direction. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

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Güven, Ş.D. (2023). Critical Thinking in Nursing. In: Rezaei, N. (eds) Brain, Decision Making and Mental Health. Integrated Science, vol 12. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-15959-6_10

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Nurses are critical thinkers

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Margaret McCartney: Nurses must be allowed to exercise professional judgment

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The characteristic that distinguishes a professional nurse is cognitive rather than psychomotor ability. Nursing practice demands that practitioners display sound judgement and decision-making skills as critical thinking and clinical decision making is an essential component of nursing practice. Nurses’ ability to recognize and respond to signs of patient deterioration in a timely manner plays a pivotal role in patient outcomes (Purling & King 2012). Errors in clinical judgement and decision making are said to account for more than half of adverse clinical events (Tomlinson, 2015). The focus of the nurse clinical judgement has to be on quality evidence based care delivery, therefore, observational and reasoning skills will result in sound, reliable, clinical judgements. Clinical judgement, a concept which is critical to the nursing can be complex, because the nurse is required to use observation skills, identify relevant information, to identify the relationships among given elements through reasoning and judgement. Clinical reasoning is the process by which nurses observe patients status, process the information, come to an understanding of the patient problem, plan and implement interventions, evaluate outcomes, with reflection and learning from the process (Levett-Jones et al, 2010). At all times, nurses are responsible for their actions and are accountable for nursing judgment and action or inaction.

The speed and ability by which the nurses make sound clinical judgement is affected by their experience. Novice nurses may find this process difficult, whereas the experienced nurse should rely on her intuition, followed by fast action. Therefore education must begin at the undergraduate level to develop students’ critical thinking and clinical reasoning skills. Clinical reasoning is a learnt skill requiring determination and active engagement in deliberate practice design to improve performance. In order to acquire such skills, students need to develop critical thinking ability, as well as an understanding of how judgements and decisions are reached in complex healthcare environments.

As lifelong learners, nurses are constantly accumulating more knowledge, expertise, and experience, and it’s a rare nurse indeed who chooses to not apply his or her mind towards the goal of constant learning and professional growth. Institute of Medicine (IOM) report on the Future of Nursing, stated, that nurses must continue their education and engage in lifelong learning to gain the needed competencies for practice. American Nurses Association (ANA), Scope and Standards of Practice requires a nurse to remain involved in continuous learning and strengthening individual practice (p.26)

Alfaro-LeFevre, R. (2009). Critical thinking and clinical judgement: A practical approach to outcome-focused thinking. (4th ed.). St Louis: Elsevier

The future of nursing: Leading change, advancing health, (2010). https://campaignforaction.org/resource/future-nursing-iom-report

Levett-Jones, T., Hoffman, K. Dempsey, Y. Jeong, S., Noble, D., Norton, C., Roche, J., & Hickey, N. (2010). The ‘five rights’ of clinical reasoning: an educational model to enhance nursing students’ ability to identify and manage clinically ‘at risk’ patients. Nurse Education Today. 30(6), 515-520.

NMC (2010) New Standards for Pre-Registration Nursing. London: Nursing and Midwifery Council.

Purling A. & King L. (2012). A literature review: graduate nurses’ preparedness for recognising and responding to the deteriorating patient. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 21(23–24), 3451–3465

Thompson, C., Aitken, l., Doran, D., Dowing, D. (2013). An agenda for clinical decision making and judgement in nursing research and education. International Journal of Nursing Studies, 50 (12), 1720 - 1726 Tomlinson, J. (2015). Using clinical supervision to improve the quality and safety of patient care: a response to Berwick and Francis. BMC Medical Education, 15(103)

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Critical Thinking in Nursing Practice

Chapter 15 Critical Thinking in Nursing Practice Objectives •  Describe characteristics of a critical thinker. •  Discuss the nurse’s responsibility in making clinical decisions. •  Discuss how reflection improves clinical decision making. •  Describe the components of a critical thinking model for clinical decision making. •  Discuss critical thinking skills used in nursing practice. •  Explain the relationship between clinical experience and critical thinking. •  Discuss the critical thinking attitudes used in clinical decision making. •  Explain how professional standards influence a nurse’s clinical decisions. •  Discuss the relationship of the nursing process to critical thinking. Key Terms Clinical decision making, p. 196 Concept map, p. 202 Critical thinking, p. 193 Decision making, p. 195 Diagnostic reasoning, p. 196 Evidence-based knowledge, p. 193 Inference, p. 196 Nursing process, p. 197 Problem solving, p. 195 Reflection, p. 202 Scientific method, p. 195 http://evolve.elsevier.com/Potter/fundamentals/ •  Review Questions •  Case Study with Questions •  Audio Glossary •  Interactive Learning Activities •  Key Term Flashcards •  Content Updates Every day you think critically without realizing it. If it’s hot outside, you take off a sweater. If your DVD doesn’t start, you reposition the disc. If you decide to walk the dogs, you change to a pair of walking shoes. These examples involve critical thinking as you face each day and prepare for all possibilities. As a nurse, you will face many clinical situations involving patients, family members, health care staff, and peers. In each situation it is important to try to see the big picture and think smart. To think smart you have to develop critical thinking skills to face each new experience and problem involving a patient’s care with open-mindedness, creativity, confidence, and continual inquiry. When a patient develops a new set of symptoms, asks you to offer comfort, or requires a procedure, it is important to think critically and make sensible judgments so the patient receives the best nursing care possible. Critical thinking is not a simple step-by-step, linear process that you learn overnight. It is a process acquired only through experience, commitment, and an active curiosity toward learning. Clinical Decisions in Nursing Practice Nurses are responsible for making accurate and appropriate clinical decisions. Clinical decision making separates professional nurses from technical personnel. For example, a professional nurse observes for changes in patients, recognizes potential problems, identifies new problems as they arise, and takes immediate action when a patient’s clinical condition worsens. Technical personnel simply follow direction in completing aspects of care that the professional nurse has identified as necessary. A professional nurse relies on knowledge and experience when deciding if a patient is having complications that call for notification of a health care provider or decides if a teaching plan for a patient is ineffective and needs revision. Benner (1984) describes clinical decision making as judgment that includes critical and reflective thinking and action and application of scientific and practical logic. Most patients have health care problems for which there are no clear textbook solutions. Each patient’s problems are unique, a product of the patient’s physical health, lifestyle, culture, relationship with family and friends, living environment, and experiences. Thus as a nurse you do not always have a clear picture of a patient’s needs and the appropriate actions to take when first meeting a patient. Instead you must learn to question, wonder, and explore different perspectives and interpretations to find a solution that benefits the patient. Because no two patients’ health problems are the same, you always apply critical thinking differently. Observe patients closely, gather information about them, examine ideas and inferences about patient problems, recognize the problems, consider scientific principles relating to the problems, and develop an approach to nursing care. With experience you learn to creatively seek new knowledge, act quickly when events change, and make quality decisions for patients’ well-being. You will find nursing to be rewarding and fulfilling through the clinical decisions you make. Critical Thinking Defined Mr. Jacobs is a 58-year-old patient who had a radical prostatectomy for prostate cancer yesterday. His nurse, Tonya, finds the patient lying supine in bed with arms extended along his sides but tensed. When Tonya checks the patient’s surgical wound and drainage device, she notes that the patient winces when she gently places her hands to palpate around the surgical incision. She asks Mr. Jacobs when he last turned onto his side, and he responds, “Not since last night some time.” Tonya asks Mr. Jacobs if he is having incisional pain, and he nods yes, saying, “It hurts too much to move.” Tonya considers the information she has observed and learned from the patient to determine that he is in pain and has reduced mobility because of it. She decides that she needs to take action to relieve Mr. Jacobs’ pain so she can turn him more frequently and begin to get him out of bed for his recovery. In the case example the nurse observes the clinical situation, asks questions, considers what she knows about postoperative pain and risk for immobility, and takes action. The nurse applies critical thinking, a continuous process characterized by open-mindedness, continual inquiry, and perseverance, combined with a willingness to look at each unique patient situation and determine which identified assumptions are true and relevant ( Heffner and Rudy, 2008 ). Critical thinking involves recognizing that an issue (e.g., patient problem) exists, analyzing information about the issue (e.g., clinical data about a patient), evaluating information (reviewing assumptions and evidence) and making conclusions ( Settersten and Lauver, 2004 ). A critical thinker considers what is important in each clinical situation, imagines and explores alternatives, considers ethical principles, and makes informed decisions about the care of patients. Critical thinking is a way of thinking about a situation that always asks “Why?”, “What am I missing?”, “What do I really know about this patient’s situation?”, and “What are my options?” ( Heffner and Rudy, 2008 ; Paul and Heaslip, 1995 ). Tonya knew that pain was likely going to be a problem because the patient had extensive surgery. Her review of her observations and the patient’s report of pain confirmed her knowledge that pain was a problem. Her options include giving Mr. Jacobs an analgesic and waiting until it takes effect so she is able to reposition and make him more comfortable. Once he has less acute pain, Tonya offers to teach Mr. Jacobs some relaxation exercises. You begin to learn critical thinking early in your practice. For example, as you learn about administering baths and other hygiene measures, take time to read your textbook and the nursing literature about the concept of comfort. What are the criteria for comfort? How do patients from other cultures perceive comfort? What are the many factors that promote comfort? The use of evidence-based knowledge, or knowledge based on research or clinical expertise, makes you an informed critical thinker. Thinking critically and learning about the concept of comfort prepares you to better anticipate your patients’ needs, identify comfort problems more quickly, and offer appropriate care. Critical thinking requires cognitive skills and the habit of asking questions, remaining well informed, being honest in facing personal biases, and always being willing to reconsider and think clearly about issues ( Facione, 1990 ). When core critical thinking skills are applied to nursing, they show the complex nature of clinical decision making ( Table 15-1 ). Being able to apply all of these skills takes practice. You also need to have a sound knowledge base and thoughtfully consider what you learn when caring for patients. TABLE 15-1 Critical Thinking Skills SKILL NURSING PRACTICE APPLICATIONS Interpretation Be orderly in data collection. Look for patterns to categorize data (e.g., nursing diagnoses [see Chapter 17 ]). Clarify any data you are uncertain about. Analysis Be open-minded as you look at information about a patient. Do not make careless assumptions. Do the data reveal what you believe is true, or are there other options? Inference Look at the meaning and significance of findings. Are there relationships between findings? Do the data about the patient help you see that a problem exists? Evaluation Look at all situations objectively. Use criteria (e.g., expected outcomes, pain characteristics, learning objectives) to determine results of nursing actions. Reflect on your own behavior. Explanation Support your findings and conclusions. Use knowledge and experience to choose strategies to use in the care of patients. Self-regulation Reflect on your experiences. Identify the ways you can improve your own performance. What will make you believe that you have been successful? Modified from Facione P: Critical thinking: a statement of expert consensus for purposes of educational assessment and instruction. The Delphi report: research findings and recommendations prepared for the American Philosophical Association, ERIC Doc No. ED 315, Washington, DC, 1990, ERIC. Nurses who apply critical thinking in their work are able to see the big picture from all possible perspectives. They focus clearly on options for solving problems and making decisions rather than quickly and carelessly forming quick solutions ( Kataoka-Yahiro and Saylor, 1994 ). Nurses who work in crisis situations such as the emergency department often act quickly when patient problems develop. However, even these nurses exercise discipline in decision making to avoid premature and inappropriate decisions. Learning to think critically helps you care for patients as their advocate, or supporter, and make better-informed choices about their care. Facione and Facione (1996) identified concepts for thinking critically ( Table 15-2 ). Critical thinking is more than just problem solving. It is a continuous attempt to improve how to apply yourself when faced with problems in patient care. TABLE 15-2 Concepts for a Critical Thinker CONCEPT CRITICAL THINKING BEHAVIOR Truth seeking Seek the true meaning of a situation. Be courageous, honest, and objective about asking questions. Open-mindedness Be tolerant of different views; be sensitive to the possibility of your own prejudices; respect the right of others to have different opinions. Analyticity Analyze potentially problematic situations; anticipate possible results or consequences; value reason; use evidence-based knowledge. Systematicity Be organized, focused; work hard in any inquiry. Self-confidence Trust in your own reasoning processes. Inquisitiveness Be eager to acquire knowledge and learn explanations even when applications of the knowledge are not immediately clear. Value learning for learning’s sake. Maturity Multiple solutions are acceptable. Reflect on your own judgments; have cognitive maturity. Modified from Facione N, Facione P: Externalizing the critical thinking in knowledge development and clinical judgment, Nurs Outlook 44(3):129, 1996. Thinking and Learning Learning is a lifelong process. Your intellectual and emotional growth involves learning new knowledge and refining your ability to think, problem solve, and make judgments. To learn, you have to be flexible and always open to new information. The science of nursing is growing rapidly, and there will always be new information for you to apply in practice. As you have more clinical experiences and apply the knowledge you learn, you will become better at forming assumptions, presenting ideas, and making valid conclusions. When you care for a patient, always think ahead and ask these questions: What is the patient’s status now? How might it change and why? Which physiological and emotional responses do I anticipate? What do I know to improve the patient’s condition? In which way will specific therapies affect the patient? What should be my first action? Do not let your thinking become routine or standardized. Instead, learn to look beyond the obvious in any clinical situation, explore the patient’s unique responses to health alterations, and recognize which actions are needed to benefit the patient. With experience you are able to recognize patterns of behavior, see commonalities in signs and symptoms, and anticipate reactions to therapies. Thinking about these experiences allows you to better anticipate each new patient’s needs and recognize problems when they develop. Levels of Critical Thinking in Nursing Your ability to think critically grows as you gain new knowledge in nursing practice. Kataoka-Yahiro and Saylor (1994) developed a critical thinking model ( Fig. 15-1 ) that includes three levels: basic, complex, and commitment. An expert nurse thinks critically almost automatically. As a beginning student you make a more conscious effort to apply critical thinking because initially you are more task oriented and trying to learn how to organize nursing care activities. At first you apply the critical thinking model at the basic level. As you advance in practice, you adopt complex critical thinking and commitment. FIG. 15-1 Critical thinking model for nursing judgment. (Redrawn from Kataoka-Yahiro M, Saylor C: A critical thinking model for nursing judgment, J Nurs Educ 33(8):351, 1994. Modified from Glaser E: An experiment in the development of critical thinking, New York, 1941, Bureau of Publications, Teachers College, Columbia University; Miller M, Malcolm N: Critical thinking in the nursing curriculum, Nurs Health Care 11:67, 1990; Paul RW: The art of redesigning instruction. In Willsen J, Blinker AJA, editors: Critical thinking: how to prepare students for a rapidly changing world, Santa Rosa, Calif, 1993, Foundation for Critical Thinking; and Perry W: Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years: a scheme , New York, 1979, Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.) Basic Critical Thinking At the basic level of critical thinking a learner trusts that experts have the right answers for every problem. Thinking is concrete and based on a set of rules or principles. For example, as a nursing student you use a hospital procedure manual to confirm how to insert a Foley catheter. You likely follow the procedure step by step without adjusting it to meet a patient’s unique needs (e.g., positioning to minimize the patient’s pain or mobility restrictions). You do not have enough experience to anticipate how to individualize the procedure. At this level answers to complex problems are either right or wrong (e.g., when no urine drains from the catheter, the catheter tip must not be in the bladder), and one right answer usually exists for each problem. Basic critical thinking is an early step in developing reasoning ( Kataoka-Yahiro and Saylor, 1994 ). A basic critical thinker learns to accept the diverse opinions and values of experts (e.g., instructors and staff nurse role models). However, inexperience, weak competencies, and inflexible attitudes can restrict a person’s ability to move to the next level of critical thinking. Complex Critical Thinking Complex critical thinkers begin to separate themselves from experts. They analyze and examine choices more independently. The person’s thinking abilities and initiative to look beyond expert opinion begin to change. A nurse learns that alternative and perhaps conflicting solutions exist. Consider the case of Mr. Rosen, a 36-year-old man who had hip surgery. The patient is having pain but is refusing his ordered analgesic. His health care provider is concerned that the patient will not progress as planned, delaying rehabilitation. While discussing the importance of rehabilitation with Mr. Rosen, the nurse, Edwin, realizes the patient’s reason for not taking pain medication. Edwin learns that the patient practices meditation at home. As a complex critical thinker, Edwin recognizes that Mr. Rosen has options for pain relief. Edwin decides to discuss meditation and other nonpharmacological interventions with the patient as pain control options and how, when combined with analgesics, these interventions can potentially enhance pain relief. In complex critical thinking each solution has benefits and risks that you weigh before making a final decision. There are options. Thinking becomes more creative and innovative. The complex critical thinker is willing to consider different options from routine procedures when complex situations develop. You learn a variety of different approaches for the same therapy. Commitment The third level of critical thinking is commitment ( Kataoka-Yahiro and Saylor, 1994 ). At this level a person anticipates when to make choices without assistance from others and accepts accountability for decisions made. As a nurse you do more than just consider the complex alternatives that a problem poses. At the commitment level you choose an action or belief based on the available alternatives and support it. Sometimes an action is to not act or to delay an action until a later time. You choose to delay as a result of your experience and knowledge. Because you take accountability for the decision, you consider the results of the decision and determine whether it was appropriate. Critical Thinking Competencies Kataoka-Yahiro and Saylor (1994) describe critical thinking competencies as the cognitive processes a nurse uses to make judgments about the clinical care of patients. These include general critical thinking, specific critical thinking in clinical situations, and specific critical thinking in nursing. General critical thinking processes are not unique to nursing. They include the scientific method, problem solving, and decision making. Specific critical thinking competencies in clinical health care situations include diagnostic reasoning, clinical inference, and clinical decision making. The specific critical thinking competency in nursing involves use of the nursing process. Each of the competencies is discussed in the following paragraphs. General Critical Thinking Scientific Method The scientific method is a way to solve problems using reasoning. It is a systematic, ordered approach to gathering data and solving problems used by nurses, physicians, and a variety of other health care professionals. This approach looks for the truth or verifies that a set of facts agrees with reality. Nurse researchers use the scientific method when testing research questions in nursing practice situations (see Chapter 5 ). The scientific method has five steps: 1  Identifying the problem 2  Collecting data 3  Formulating a question or hypothesis 4  Testing the question or hypothesis 5  Evaluating results of the test or study Consider the following example of the scientific method in nursing practice. A nurse caring for patients who receive large doses of chemotherapy for ovarian cancer sees a pattern of patients developing severe inflammation in the mouth (mucositis) (identifies problem). The nurse reads research articles (collects data) about mucositis and learns that there is evidence to show that having patients keep ice in their mouths (cryotherapy) during the chemotherapy infusion reduces severity of mucositis after treatment. He or she asks (forms question), “Do patients with ovarian cancer who receive chemotherapy have less severe mucositis when given cryotherapy versus standard mouth rinse in the oral cavity?” The nurse then collaborates with colleagues to develop a nursing protocol for using ice with certain chemotherapy infusions. The nurses on the oncology unit collect information that allows them to compare the incidence and severity of mucositis for a group of patients who use cryotherapy versus those who use standard-practice mouth rinse (tests the question). They analyze the results of their project and find that the use of cryotherapy reduced the frequency and severity of mucositis in their patients (evaluating the results). They decide to continue the protocol for all patients with ovarian cancer. Problem Solving You face problems every day such as a computer program that doesn’t function properly or a close friend who has lost a favorite pet. When a problem arises, you obtain information and use it, plus what you already know, to find a solution. Patients routinely present problems in practice. For example, a home care nurse learns that a patient has difficulty taking her medications regularly. The patient is unable to describe what medications she has taken for the last 3 days. The medication bottles are labeled and filled. The nurse has to solve the problem of why the patient is not adhering to or following her medication schedule. The nurse knows that the patient was discharged from the hospital and had five medications ordered. The patient tells the nurse that she also takes two over-the-counter medications regularly. When the nurse asks her to show the medications that she takes in the morning, the nurse notices that she has difficulty reading the medication labels. The patient is able to describe the medications that she is to take but is uncertain about the times of administration. The nurse recommends having the patient’s pharmacy relabel the medications in larger lettering. In addition, the nurse shows the patient examples of pill organizers that will help her sort her medications by time of day for a period of 7 days. Effective problem solving also involves evaluating the solution over time to make sure that it is effective. It becomes necessary to try different options if a problem recurs. From the previous example, during a follow-up visit the nurse finds that the patient has organized her medications correctly and is able to read the labels without difficulty. The nurse obtained information that correctly clarified the cause of the patient’s problem and tested a solution that proved successful. Having solved a problem in one situation adds to a nurse’s experience in practice, and this allows the nurse to apply that knowledge in future patient situations. Decision Making When you face a problem or situation and need to choose a course of action from several options, you are making a decision. Decision making is a product of critical thinking that focuses on problem resolution. Following a set of criteria helps to make a thorough and thoughtful decision. The criteria may be personal; based on an organizational policy; or, frequently in the case of nursing, a professional standard. For example, decision making occurs when a person decides on the choice of a health care provider. To make a decision, an individual has to recognize and define the problem or situation (need for a certain type of health care provider to provide medical care) and assess all options (consider recommended health care providers or choose one whose office is close to home). The person has to weigh each option against a set of personal criteria (experience, friendliness, and reputation), test possible options (talk directly with the different health care providers), consider the consequences of the decision (examine pros and cons of selecting one health care provider over another), and make a final decision. Although the set of criteria follows a sequence of steps, decision making involves moving back and forth when considering all criteria. It leads to informed conclusions that are supported by evidence and reason. Examples of decision making in the clinical area include determining which patient care priority requires the first response, choosing a type of dressing for a patient with a surgical wound, or selecting the best teaching approach for a family caregiver who will assist a patient who is returning home after a stroke. Specific Critical Thinking Diagnostic Reasoning and Inference Once you receive information about a patient in a clinical situation, diagnostic reasoning begins. It is the analytical process for determining a patient’s health problems ( Harjai and Tiwari, 2009 ). Accurate recognition of a patient’s problems is necessary before you decide on solutions and implement action. It requires you to assign meaning to the behaviors and physical signs and symptoms presented by a patient. Diagnostic reasoning begins when you interact with a patient or make physical or behavioral observations. An expert nurse sees the context of a patient situation (e.g., a patient who is feeling light-headed with blurred vision and who has a history of diabetes is possibly experiencing a problem with blood glucose levels), observes patterns and themes (e.g., symptoms that include weakness, hunger, and visual disturbances suggest hypoglycemia), and makes decisions quickly (e.g., offers a food source containing glucose). The information a nurse collects and analyzes leads to a diagnosis of a patient’s condition. Nurses do not make medical diagnoses, but they do assess and monitor patients closely and compare the patients’ signs and symptoms with those that are common to a medical diagnosis. This type of diagnostic reasoning helps health care providers pinpoint the nature of a problem more quickly and select proper therapies. Part of diagnostic reasoning is clinical inference, the process of drawing conclusions from related pieces of evidence and previous experience with the evidence. An inference involves forming patterns of information from data before making a diagnosis. Seeing that a patient has lost appetite and experienced weight loss over the last month, the nurse infers that there is a nutritional problem. An example of diagnostic reasoning is forming a nursing diagnosis such as imbalanced nutrition: less than body requirements (see Chapter 17 ). In diagnostic reasoning use patient data that you gather or collect to logically recognize the problem. For example, after turning a patient you see an area of redness on the right hip. You palpate the area and note that it is warm to the touch and the patient complains of tenderness. You press over the area with your finger; after you release pressure, the area does not blanch or turn white. After thinking about what you know about normal skin integrity and the effects of pressure, you form the diagnostic conclusion that the patient has a pressure ulcer. As a student, confirm your judgments with experienced nurses. At times you possibly will be wrong, but consulting with nurse experts gives you feedback to build on future clinical situations. Often you cannot make a precise diagnosis during your first meeting with a patient. Sometimes you sense that a problem exists but do not have enough data to make a specific diagnosis. Some patients’ physical conditions limit their ability to tell you about symptoms. Some choose to not share sensitive and important information during your initial assessment. Some patients’ behaviors and physical responses become observable only under conditions not present during your initial assessment. When uncertain of a diagnosis, continue data collection. You have to critically analyze changing clinical situations until you are able to determine the patient’s unique situation. Diagnostic reasoning is a continuous behavior in nursing practice. Any diagnostic conclusions that you make will help the health care provider identify the nature of a problem more quickly and select appropriate medical therapies. Clinical Decision Making As in the case of general decision making, clinical decision making is a problem-solving activity that focuses on defining a problem and selecting an appropriate action. In clinical decision making a nurse identifies a patient’s problem and selects a nursing intervention. When you approach a clinical problem such as a patient who is less mobile and develops an area of redness over the hip, you make a decision that identifies the problem (impaired skin integrity in the form of a pressure ulcer) and choose the best nursing interventions (skin care and a turning schedule). Nurses make clinical decisions all the time to improve a patient’s health or maintain wellness. This means reducing the severity of the problem or resolving the problem completely. Clinical decision making requires careful reasoning (i.e., choosing the options for the best patient outcomes on the basis of the patient’s condition and the priority of the problem). Improve your clinical decision making by knowing your patients. Nurse researchers found that expert nurses develop a level of knowing that leads to pattern recognition of patient symptoms and responses ( White, 2003 ). For example, an expert nurse who has worked on a general surgery unit for many years is more likely able to detect signs of internal hemorrhage (e.g., fall in blood pressure, rapid pulse, change in consciousness) than a new nurse. Over time a combination of experience, time spent in a specific clinical area, and the quality of relationships formed with patients allow expert nurses to know clinical situations and quickly anticipate and select the right course of action. Spending more time during initial patient assessments to observe patient behavior and measure physical findings is a way to improve knowledge of your patients. In addition, consistently assessing and monitoring patients as problems occur help you to see how clinical changes develop over time. The selection of nursing therapies is built on both clinical knowledge and specific patient data, including: •  The identified status and situation you assessed about the patient, including data collected by actively listening to the patient regarding his or her health care needs. •  Knowledge about the clinical variables (e.g., age, seriousness of the problem, pathology of the problem, patient’s preexisting disease conditions) involved in the situation, and how the variables are linked together. •  A judgment about the likely course of events and outcome of the diagnosed problem, considering any health risks the patient has; includes knowledge about usual patterns of any diagnosed problem or prognosis. •  Any additional relevant data about requirements in the patient’s daily living, functional capacity, and social resources. •  Knowledge about the nursing therapy options available and the way in which specific interventions will predictably affect the patient’s situation.

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Why Critical Thinking Skills in Nursing Matter (And What You Can Do to Develop Them)

By Hannah Meinke on 07/05/2021

Critical Thinking in Nursing

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 overlooked: the ability to think critically.

Identifying a problem, determining the best solution and choosing the most effective method to solve the program 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 starting 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 the Rasmussen University School of Nursing.

For example, nurses often have to make triage decisions in the emergency room. With an overflow of patients and limited staff, they must evaluate which patients should be treated first. While they rely on their training to measure vital signs and level of consciousness, they must use critical thinking to analyze the consequences of delaying treatment in each case.

No matter which department they work in, nurses use critical thinking in their everyday routines. 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 upholds 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. 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 a nurse?

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.

Do critical thinking skills matter more for nursing leadership and management positions?

While critical thinking skills are essential at every level of nursing, leadership and management positions require a new level of this ability.

When it comes to managing other nurses, working with hospital administration, and dealing with budgets, schedules or policies, critical thinking can make the difference between a smooth-running or struggling department. At the leadership level, nurses need to see the big picture and understand how each part works together.

A nurse manager , for example, might have to deal with being short-staffed. This could require coaching nurses on how to prioritize their workload, organize their tasks and rely on strategies to keep from burning out. A lead nurse with strong critical thinking skills knows how to fully understand the problem and all its implications.

  • How will patient care be affected by having fewer staff?
  • What kind of strain will be on the nurses?

Their solutions will take into account all their resources and possible roadblocks.

  • What work can be delegated to nursing aids?
  • Are there any nurses willing to come in on their day off?
  • Are nurses from other departments available to provide coverage?

They’ll weigh the pros and cons of each solution and choose those with the greatest potential.

  • Will calling in an off-duty nurse contribute to burnout?
  • Was this situation a one-off occurrence or something that could require an additional hire in the long term?

Finally, they will look back on the issue and evaluate what worked and what didn’t. With critical thinking skills like this, a lead nurse can affect their entire staff, patient population and department for the better.

Beyond thinking

You’re now well aware of the importance of critical thinking skills in nursing. Even if you already use critical thinking skills every day, you can still work toward strengthening that skill. The more you practice it, the better you will become and the more naturally it will come to you.

If you’re interested in critical thinking because you’d like to move up in your current nursing job, consider how a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) could help you develop the necessary leadership skills.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in July 2012. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2021.

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About the author

Hannah Meinke

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Posted in General Nursing

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Critical thinking in nursing clinical practice, education and research: From attitudes to virtue


  • 1 Department of Fundamental Care and Medical Surgital Nursing, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, School of Nursing, Consolidated Research Group Quantitative Psychology (2017-SGR-269), University of Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain.
  • 2 Department of Fundamental Care and Medical Surgital Nursing, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, School of Nursing, Consolidated Research Group on Gender, Identity and Diversity (2017-SGR-1091), University of Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain.
  • 3 Department of Fundamental Care and Medical Surgital Nursing, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, School of Nursing, University of Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain.
  • 4 Multidisciplinary Nursing Research Group, Vall d'Hebron Research Institute (VHIR), Vall d'Hebron Hospital, Barcelona, Spain.
  • PMID: 33029860
  • DOI: 10.1111/nup.12332

Critical thinking is a complex, dynamic process formed by attitudes and strategic skills, with the aim of achieving a specific goal or objective. The attitudes, including the critical thinking attitudes, constitute an important part of the idea of good care, of the good professional. It could be said that they become a virtue of the nursing profession. In this context, the ethics of virtue is a theoretical framework that becomes essential for analyse the critical thinking concept in nursing care and nursing science. Because the ethics of virtue consider how cultivating virtues are necessary to understand and justify the decisions and guide the actions. Based on selective analysis of the descriptive and empirical literature that addresses conceptual review of critical thinking, we conducted an analysis of this topic in the settings of clinical practice, training and research from the virtue ethical framework. Following JBI critical appraisal checklist for text and opinion papers, we argue the need for critical thinking as an essential element for true excellence in care and that it should be encouraged among professionals. The importance of developing critical thinking skills in education is well substantiated; however, greater efforts are required to implement educational strategies directed at developing critical thinking in students and professionals undergoing training, along with measures that demonstrate their success. Lastly, we show that critical thinking constitutes a fundamental component in the research process, and can improve research competencies in nursing. We conclude that future research and actions must go further in the search for new evidence and open new horizons, to ensure a positive effect on clinical practice, patient health, student education and the growth of nursing science.

Keywords: critical thinking; critical thinking attitudes; nurse education; nursing care; nursing research.

© 2020 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

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Teaching Strategies for Developing Clinical Reasoning Skills in Nursing Students: A Systematic Review of Randomised Controlled Trials

Associated data.

Data are contained within the article.

Background: Clinical reasoning (CR) is a holistic and recursive cognitive process. It allows nursing students to accurately perceive patients’ situations and choose the best course of action among the available alternatives. This study aimed to identify the randomised controlled trials studies in the literature that concern clinical reasoning in the context of nursing students. Methods: A comprehensive search of PubMed, Scopus, Embase, and the Cochrane Controlled Register of Trials (CENTRAL) was performed to identify relevant studies published up to October 2023. The following inclusion criteria were examined: (a) clinical reasoning, clinical judgment, and critical thinking in nursing students as a primary study aim; (b) articles published for the last eleven years; (c) research conducted between January 2012 and September 2023; (d) articles published only in English and Spanish; and (e) Randomised Clinical Trials. The Critical Appraisal Skills Programme tool was utilised to appraise all included studies. Results: Fifteen papers were analysed. Based on the teaching strategies used in the articles, two groups have been identified: simulation methods and learning programs. The studies focus on comparing different teaching methodologies. Conclusions: This systematic review has detected different approaches to help nursing students improve their reasoning and decision-making skills. The use of mobile apps, digital simulations, and learning games has a positive impact on the clinical reasoning abilities of nursing students and their motivation. Incorporating new technologies into problem-solving-based learning and decision-making can also enhance nursing students’ reasoning skills. Nursing schools should evaluate their current methods and consider integrating or modifying new technologies and methodologies that can help enhance students’ learning and improve their clinical reasoning and cognitive skills.

1. Introduction

Clinical reasoning (CR) is a holistic cognitive process. It allows nursing students to accurately perceive patients’ situations and choose the best course of action among the available alternatives. This process is consistent, dynamic, and flexible, and it helps nursing students gain awareness and put their learning into perspective [ 1 ]. CR is an essential competence for nurses’ professional practice. It is considered crucial that its development begin during basic training [ 2 ]. Analysing clinical data, determining priorities, developing plans, and interpreting results are primary skills in clinical reasoning during clinical nursing practise [ 3 ]. To develop these skills, nursing students must participate in caring for patients and working in teams during clinical experiences. Among clinical reasoning skills, we can identify communication skills as necessary for connecting with patients, conducting health interviews, engaging in shared decision-making, eliciting patients’ concerns and expectations, discussing clinical cases with colleagues and supervisors, and explaining one’s reasoning to others [ 4 ].

Educating students in nursing practise to ensure high-quality learning and safe clinical practise is a constant challenge [ 5 ]. Facilitating the development of reasoning is challenging for educators due to its complexity and multifaceted nature [ 6 ], but it is necessary because clinical reasoning must be embedded throughout the nursing curriculum [ 7 ]. Such being the case, the development of clinical reasoning is encouraged, aiming to promote better performance in indispensable skills, decision-making, quality, and safety when assisting patients [ 8 ].

Nursing education is targeted at recognising clinical signs and symptoms, accurately assessing the patient, appropriately intervening, and evaluating the effectiveness of interventions. All these clinical processes require clinical reasoning, and it takes time to develop [ 9 ]. This is a significant goal of nursing education [ 10 ] in contemporary teaching and learning approaches [ 6 ].

Strategies to mitigate errors, promote knowledge acquisition, and develop clinical reasoning should be adopted in the training of health professionals. According to the literature, different methods and teaching strategies can be applied during nursing training, as well as traditional teaching through lectures. However, the literature explains that this type of methodology cannot enhance students’ clinical reasoning alone. Therefore, nursing educators are tasked with looking for other methodologies that improve students’ clinical reasoning [ 11 ], such as clinical simulation. Clinical simulation offers a secure and controlled setting to encounter and contemplate clinical scenarios, establish relationships, gather information, and exercise autonomy in decision-making and problem-solving [ 12 ]. Different teaching strategies have been developed in clinical simulation, like games or case studies. Research indicates a positive correlation between the use of simulation to improve learning outcomes and how it positively influences the development of students’ clinical reasoning skills [ 13 ].

The students of the 21st century utilise information and communication technologies. With their technological skills, organisations can enhance their productivity and achieve their goals more efficiently. Serious games are simulations that use technology to provide nursing students with a safe and realistic environment to practise clinical reasoning and decision-making skills [ 14 ] and can foster the development of clinical reasoning through an engaging and motivating experience [ 15 ].

New graduate nurses must possess the reasoning skills required to handle complex patient situations. Aware that there are different teaching methodologies, with this systematic review we intend to discover which RCTs published focus on CR in nursing students, which interventions have been developed, and their effectiveness, both at the level of knowledge and in increasing clinical reasoning skills. By identifying the different techniques used during the interventions with nursing students in recent years and their effectiveness, it will help universities decide which type of methodology to implement to improve the reasoning skills of nursing students and, therefore, obtain better healthcare results.

This study aims to identify and analyse randomised controlled trials concerning clinical reasoning in nursing students. The following questions guide this literature review:

Which randomised controlled trials have been conducted in the last eleven years regarding nursing students’ clinical reasoning? What are the purposes of the identified RCTs? Which teaching methodologies or strategies were used in the RCTs studies? What were the outcomes of the teaching strategies used in the RCTs?

2. Materials and Methods

This review follows the PRISMA 2020 model statement for systematic reviews. That comprises three documents: the 27-item checklist, the PRISMA 2020 abstract checklist, and the revised flow diagram [ 16 ].

2.1. Search Strategy

A systematic literature review was conducted on PubMed, Scopus, Embase, and the Cochrane Controlled Register of Trials (CENTRAL) up to 15th October 2023.

The PICOS methodology guided the bibliographic search [ 17 ]: “P” being the population (nursing students), “I” the intervention (clinical reasoning), “C” comparison (traditional teaching), “O” outcome (dimension, context, and attributes of clinical reasoning in the students’ competences and the results of the teaching method on nursing students), and “S” study type (RCTs).

The search strategy used in each database was the following: (“nursing students” OR “nursing students” OR “pupil nurses” OR “undergraduate nursing”) AND (“clinical reasoning” OR “critical thinking” OR “clinical judgment”). The filters applied were full text, randomised controlled trial, English, Spanish, and from 1 January 2012 to 15 October 2023. The search strategy was performed using the same process for each database. APP performed the search, and AZ supervised the process.

During the search, the terms clinical reasoning, critical thinking, and clinical judgement were used interchangeably since clinical judgement is part of clinical reasoning and is defined by the decision to act. It is influenced by an individual’s previous experiences and clinical reasoning skills [ 18 ]. Critical thinking and clinical judgement involve reflective and logical thinking skills and play a vital role in the decision-making and problem-solving processes [ 19 ].

The first search was conducted between March and September 2022, and an additional search was conducted during October 2023, adding the new articles published between September 2022 and September 2023, following the same strategy. The search strategy was developed using words from article titles, abstracts, and index terms. Parallel to this process, the PRISMA protocol was used to systematise the collection of all the information presented in each selected article. This systematic review protocol was registered in the international register PROSPERO: CRD42022372240.

2.2. Eligibility Criteria and Study Selection

The following inclusion criteria were examined: (a) clinical reasoning, clinical judgment, and critical thinking in nursing students as a primary aim; (b) articles published in the last eleven years; (c) research conducted between January 2012 and September 2023; (d) articles published only in English and Spanish; and (e) RCTs. On the other hand, the exclusion criteria were studies conducted with students from other disciplines other than nursing, not random studies or review articles.

2.3. Data Collection and Extraction

After this study selection, the following information was extracted from each article: bibliographic information, study aims, teaching methodology, sample size and characteristics, time of intervention, and conclusions.

2.4. Risk of Bias

The two reviewers, APP and AZ, worked independently to minimise bias and mistakes. The titles and abstracts of all papers were screened for inclusion. All potential articles underwent a two-stage screening process based on the inclusion criteria. All citations were screened based on title, abstract, and text. Reviewers discussed the results to resolve minor discrepancies. All uncertain citations were included for full-text review. The full text of each included citation was obtained. Each study was read thoroughly and assessed for inclusion following the inclusion and exclusion criteria explained in the methodology. The CASP tool was utilised to appraise all included studies. The CASP Randomized Controlled Trial Standard Checklist is an 11-question checklist [ 20 ], and the components assessed included the appropriateness of the objective and aims, methodology, study design, sampling method, data collection, reflexivity of the researchers, ethical considerations, data analysis, rigour of findings, and significance of this research. These items of the studies were then rated (“Yes” = with three points; “Cannot tell” = with two points; “No” = with one point). The possible rates for every article were between 0 and 39 points.

2.5. Ethical Considerations

Since this study was a comprehensive, systematic review of the existing published literature, there was no need for us to seek ethical approval.

3.1. Search Results

The initial search identified 158 articles using the above-mentioned strategy (SCOPUS ® n = 72, PUBMED ® n = 56, CENTRAL ® n = 23, and EMBASE ® n= 7), and the results are presented in Figure 1 . After retrieving the articles and excluding 111, 47 were selected for a full reading. Finally, 17 articles were selected. To comply with the methodology, the independent reviewers analysed all the selected articles one more time after the additional search, and they agreed to eliminate two of them because this study sample included nursing students as well as professional nurses. Therefore, to have a clear outcome focused on nursing students, two articles were removed, and the very final sample size was fifteen articles, following the established selection criteria ( Figure 1 ). The reasons for excluding studies from the systematic review were: nurses as targets; other design types of studies different from RCTs; focusing on other health professionals such as medical students; review studies; and being published in full text in other languages other than Spanish or English.

An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is healthcare-12-00090-g001.jpg

Flowchart of screening of clinical reasoning RCTs that underwent review.

3.2. Risk of Bias in CASP Results

All studies included in the review were screened with the CASP tool. Each study was scored out of a maximum of 39 points, showing the high quality of the randomised control trial methodology. The studies included had an average score of 33.1, ranging from 30 to 36 points. In addition, this quantitative rate of the items based on CASP, there were 13 studies that missed an item in relation to assessing/analysing outcome/s ‘blinded or not’ or not, and 11 studies that missed the item whether the benefits of the experimental intervention outweigh the harms and costs.

3.3. Data Extraction

Once the articles had undergone a full reading and the inclusion criteria were applied, data extraction was performed with a data extraction table ( Appendix A ). Their contents were summarised into six different cells: (1) CASP total points result, (2) purpose of this study, (3) teaching strategy, (4) time of intervention, (5) sample size, and (6) author and year of publication. After the review by the article’s readers, fifteen RCTs were selected. Of the fifteen, the continent with the highest number of studies was Asia, with 53.33% of the studies (n = 8) (Korea n = 4, Taiwan n = 2, and China n = 2), followed by Europe with 26.66% (n = 4) (Turkey n = 2, Paris n = 1, and Norway n = 1), and lastly South America with 20% (n = 3), all of them from Brazil.

3.4. Teaching Strategies

Different teaching strategies have been identified in the reviewed studies: simulation methods (seven articles) and learning programmes (eight articles). There are also two studies that focus on comparing different teaching methodologies.

3.4.1. Clinical Simulation

The simulation methods focused on in the studies were virtual simulation (based on mobile applications), simulation games, and high-fidelity clinical simulation. Of the total number of nursing students in the studies referring to clinical simulations, 43.85% were in their second year, while 57.1% were senior-year students. The most used method in the clinical simulation group was virtual simulation, and 57.14% of studies included only one-day teaching interventions.

Virtual simulations were used to increase knowledge about medication administration and nasotracheal suctioning in different scenarios [ 21 ], to evaluate the effect of interactive nursing skills, knowledge, and self-efficacy [ 11 ], and to detect patient deterioration in two different cases [ 22 ]. Simulation game methodology was used to improve nursing students’ cognitive and attention skills, strengthen judgment, time management, and decision-making [ 14 ].

Clinical simulation was used to develop nursing students’ clinical reasoning in evaluating wounds and their treatments [ 12 ], to evaluate and compare the perception of stressors, with the goal of determining whether simulations promote students’ self-evaluation and critical-thinking skills [ 23 ], and also to evaluate the impact of multiple simulations on students’ self-reported clinical decision-making skills and self-confidence [ 24 ].

3.4.2. Learning Programs

Different types of learning programmes have been identified in this systematic review: team-based learning, reflective training programs, person-centred educational programmes, ethical reasoning programmes, case-based learning, mapping, training problem-solving skills, and self-instructional guides. Of the total number of nursing students in the studies referring to learning programs, 57.1% were junior-year students, while 43.85% were in their senior year.

Team-based learning is a learner-centred educational strategy that promotes active learning to improve students’ problem-solving, knowledge, and practise performance. It can be implemented in small or large groups divided into teams with an instructor and reading material based on case scenarios [ 25 ]. Reflective training is based on a new mentoring practise to explore, think about, and solve problems actively during an internship. During the reflective training program, the mentors lead students to uncover clinical nursing problems through conversations with them and discussing feedback for their professional portfolios [ 26 ]. The person-centred educational programme focuses on how nursing students perceive individualised care, using design thinking to improve their perception. The use of design thinking gave the students opportunities to apply their theoretical knowledge of the person-centred program to plan innovative solutions that may effectively resolve real-life situations [ 27 ]. Another educational programme identified is the ethical reasoning program, and the aim of this is to improve nursing students’ handling of ethical decision-making situations [ 28 ], engaging the students in complex ethical clinical situations based on real cases.

Case-based learning was used to explore and demonstrate the feasibility of implementing unfolding cases in lectures to develop students’ critical-thinking abilities [ 29 ]. The web-based concept mapping of nursing students was also investigated to determine its impact on critical-thinking skills [ 30 ]. Training problem-solving skills were used to find out how it affected the rate of self-handicapping among nursing students [ 31 ]. And the last article evaluated the effect of the self-instructional guide to improve clinical reasoning skills on diagnostic accuracy in undergraduate nursing students [ 32 ].

4. Discussion

Although 158 studies were initially identified, only 15 articles were finally included in this review. The excluded articles were mainly from other disciplines other than nursing and used a less rigorous study design than RCT.

The three longest interventions were developed in Asia [ 26 , 28 , 29 ]. The longest was 300 h in duration, through one year [ 30 ]. These interventions were based on learning programs, case-based learning, person-centred care (PCC), and reflective training programs. However, it is important to take into account that Asian nursing curriculum programmes are different from European or United States curriculum because their internship is carried out only during the last academic degree year, while in Europe, following the European directive 2005/36/CE, 2013/55/UE nursing education requirements of 4600 h (2300 h of clinical practice) is carried out along the 3–4 years of the academic degree [ 33 ]. On the other hand, the intervention with the biggest sample was 419 nursing students [ 30 ], 210 in the experimental group, and 209 in the control group, and the one with the lowest sample was 51, with 24 students in the control group and 27 in the intervention group [ 32 ]. Therefore, all the included studies had a good sample size.

This systematic review has detected different methodologies to help nursing students improve their reasoning and decision-making skills. Virtual simulation was the most frequently used teaching method, both as a mobile application and as a serious game. In terms of its effectiveness in a study carried out in Taiwan, the use of a mobile application resulted in significantly higher knowledge scores, better skill performance, and higher satisfaction in students than traditional paper materials [ 21 ]. Virtual simulation [ 11 , 14 , 21 ] has also proven to be an effective tool for enhancing knowledge and confidence in recognising and responding to rapidly deteriorating patients, but studies that combined two educational strategies were more effective [ 29 ], like clinical simulation combined with another teaching strategy such as lectures or videos [ 12 ].

An interactive learner-centred nursing education mobile application with systematic contents effectively allowed students to experience positive practical nursing skills [ 11 ]. However, in a study comparing serious game simulation versus traditional teaching methods, no significant difference was found immediately or in the month following the training [ 22 ], but serious games can improve nursing students’ cognitive skills to detect patient deterioration and to make safe decisions about patient care [ 14 ]. Although the innovative teaching method was well received by the students, who expressed higher levels of satisfaction and motivation [ 22 ]. We can affirm that the development of a mobile application and its application can be effectively used by nursing students at all levels [ 11 ]. However, the performance of all these studies was measured on its short-term outcomes, only 40 min [ 21 ], 2 h [ 22 ], and 1 week [ 11 , 14 ] of intervention, and was performed with a mean sample size of 97 nursing students.

The data obtained in a study developed in Brazil [ 12 ] confirm that clinical simulation is effective for the development of nursing students’ clinical reasoning in wound evaluation and treatment and that clinical simulation in conjunction with other educational methods promotes the acquisition of knowledge by facilitating the transition from what the student knows to rational action. Moreover, the high-fidelity simulation strategy increases the perception of stressors related to a lack of competence and interpersonal relationships with patients, multidisciplinary teams, and colleagues compared with the conventional practice class in the skill laboratory. This increase was related to the students’ capacity for self-evaluation and critical reflection, concerning their learning responsibility and the need to acquire the required skills for patient care [ 23 ]. However, in the case of the effect of multiple simulations on students, there are no differences found between the double-versus single-scenario simulations [ 24 ]. The intervention time in these three studies was 30 min [ 23 ], 3.5 h [ 12 ], and 4 days [ 24 ]; then the time used to implement the intervention can determine the results obtained.

The different learning methods have an impact on various learning outcomes and students’ variables. Team-based learning [ 25 ], reflective training [ 26 ], the person-centred education programme [ 27 ], web-based concept mapping [ 30 ], and teaching cognitive-behavioural approaches [ 31 ] have proven to be effective in enhancing problem-solving abilities, knowledge, and reasoning processes and consequently improving the quality of nursing practical education. Team-based learning increased problem-solving ability scores significantly, while those in the control group decreased [ 25 ]. Reflective training, developed in China based on the new mentoring approach, was effective in encouraging nursing students to explore, think about, and solve problems actively during an internship, consequently improving their disposition for critical thinking [ 26 ]. A person-centred education programme using design thinking can effectively improve how nursing students perceive individualised care. Using design thinking allowed the students to apply their theoretical knowledge of the programme to plan innovative solutions that may effectively resolve real health problems [ 27 ]. These programmes were developed in 5 or 6 days [ 27 , 31 ], 1 week or 3 weeks [ 25 , 30 ], and 1 year [ 26 ].

The education programme focused on improving ethical decision-making had statistically significant improvements in nursing students’ self-efficacy in communication confidence, complex ethical decision-making skills, and decreased communication difficulty [ 28 ]. Case-based learning was more effective with lectures than without them in developing students’ critical thinking abilities [ 29 ]. This study was one of the longest developed with 300 h during one school year. This long-term learning intervention could have a positive impact on this study sample. Therefore, the time of the learning intervention could be a limitation in the studied RCTs. The one-time self-instruction guide was ineffective in impacting students’ diagnostic accuracy in solving case studies [ 32 ], and it is possible that only one day of intervention is not enough.

Studies have shown that problem- and team-based learning [ 25 , 31 ] are more beneficial than traditional teaching [ 29 ], as they enhance nursing skills and improve problem-solving abilities, clinical performance, communication competencies, critical thinking, and self-leadership.

Researchers generally agree that clinical reasoning is an important ability and one of the most important competencies for good nursing practise to ensure optimal patient outcomes [ 29 ] and to recognise and address patient deterioration effectively. However, effective communication is crucial in clinical reasoning. It is required to establish a rapport with patients, conduct health evaluations, make collaborative decisions, and discuss clinical cases with colleagues and supervisors. Developing clinical reasoning skills during training is essential to improving nursing professionals’ practice. To enhance clinical reasoning abilities, nursing schools should integrate simulations at every level of education to ultimately improve patient care. Improving nursing students’ preparation will impact the quality of patient care. In addition, new innovative teaching methodologies based on the use of technology could be a motivational driver in nursing clinical reasoning [ 22 ].

5. Limitations

This systematic review did not perform a search on CINAHL. Although most of the journals included in this database are included in MEDLINE, this should be addressed in the future because of the relevance of the database to nursing research. The results of the included studies could have also been influenced by the different times of the interventions and the different contexts. In addition, the reviewers have identified other studies published in languages other than those required by the inclusion criteria. It seems that many articles are published by Asian researchers, but some of them are not in English, so they cannot be analysed.

6. Conclusions

As society progresses, the new generation of nursing students poses a challenge; new technologies are ingrained in their daily lives with access to increasingly advanced technologies like artificial intelligence, and we must adapt training to capture their interest and increase their learning skills. The utilisation of mobile apps, digital simulations, and learning games has a positive impact on the clinical reasoning abilities of nursing students and their motivation. Incorporating new technologies into problem-solving-based learning and decision-making can also enhance nursing students’ reasoning skills. As a result, it is crucial to incorporate these tools into the learning process to maintain students’ interest, motivation, and satisfaction in education. Clinical simulation is particularly important in the training of students in terms of clinical performance. Still, it is necessary to add another teaching method to increase the efficacy of clinical simulations. Therefore, nursing schools should evaluate their current teaching methods and consider integrating or modifying new technologies and methodologies that can help enhance students’ learning, improve their clinical reasoning and cognitive skills, and potentially improve nursing students’ ability to affect patient care positively. By doing so, students will be better equipped to provide high-quality patient care in the future.

Funding Statement

This research received external funding from the European programme Eramus +2021-1-BE02-KA220-HED-000023194.

Author Contributions

Conceptualisation, A.P.-P. and A.Z.; methodology, A.P.-P. and A.Z.; formal analysis, A.P.-P.; writing—original draft preparation, A.P.-P.; writing—review and editing, A.Z.; visualisation, A.Z.; supervision, A.Z. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.

Institutional Review Board Statement

Not applicable.

Informed Consent Statement

Data availability statement, conflicts of interest.

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

Disclaimer/Publisher’s Note: The statements, opinions and data contained in all publications are solely those of the individual author(s) and contributor(s) and not of MDPI and/or the editor(s). MDPI and/or the editor(s) disclaim responsibility for any injury to people or property resulting from any ideas, methods, instructions or products referred to in the content.

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Developing Critical-Thinking Skills in Student Nurses

April 8, 2020

View all blog posts under Articles | View all blog posts under Master of Science in Nursing

Nurse educators should ensure that students can incorporate critical thinking skills into everyday practice.

Critical thinking skills for nurses include problem-solving and the ability to evaluate situations and make recommendations. Done correctly, critical thinking results in positive patient outcomes, Srinidhi Lakhanigam, an RN-BSN, said in a Minority Nurse article.

“Critical thinking is the result of a combination of innate curiosity; a strong foundation of theoretical knowledge of human anatomy and physiology, disease processes, and normal and abnormal lab values; and an orientation for thinking on your feet,” Lakhanigam said in “Critical Thinking: A Vital Trait for Nurses.” “Combining this with a strong passion for patient care will produce positive patient outcomes. The critical thinking nurse has an open mind and draws heavily upon evidence-based research and past clinical experiences to solve patient problems.”

Since the 1980s, critical thinking has become a widely discussed component of nurse education, and a significant factor for National League for Nursing (NLN) nursing school accreditation. Nursing school curriculum is expected to teach students how to analyze situations and develop solutions based on high-order thinking skills. For nurse educators who are responsible for undergraduate and graduate learners , teaching critical thinking skills is crucial to the future of healthcare.

Characteristics of Critical Thinkers

A landmark 1990 study found critical thinkers demonstrate similar characteristics. The Delphi Report by the American Philosophical Association (APA) identified these cognitive skills common to critical thinkers:


Critical thinkers are able to categorize and decode the significance and meaning of experiences, situations, data, events, and rules, among others.

Critical thinkers can examine varying ideas, statements, questions, descriptions and concepts and analyze the reasoning.

Critical thinkers consider relevant information from evidence to draw conclusions.


Critical thinkers state the results of their reasoning through sound arguments.


Critical thinkers monitor their cognitive abilities to reflect on their motivations and correct their mistakes.

In addition, critical thinkers are well-informed and concerned about a wide variety of topics. They are flexible to alternative ideas and opinions and are honest when facing personal biases. They have a willingness to reconsider their views when change is warranted.

In nursing, critical thinking and clinical reasoning are inextricably linked, columnist Margaret McCartney said in the BMJ . While experienced nurses are able to make sound clinical judgements quickly and accurately, novice nurses find the process more difficult, McCartney said in “Nurses must be allowed to exercise professional judgment.”

“Therefore, education must begin at the undergraduate level to develop students’ critical thinking and clinical reasoning skills,” McCartney said. “Clinical reasoning is a learnt skill requiring determination and active engagement in deliberate practice design to improve performance. In order to acquire such skills, students need to develop critical thinking ability, as well as an understanding of how judgments and decisions are reached in complex healthcare environments.”

Teaching Critical Thinking to Nurses

In 2015, a study in the Journal of College Teaching & Learning found a positive correlation between critical thinking skills and success in nursing school. The study said, “It is the responsibility of nurse educators to ensure that nursing graduates have developed the critical thinking abilities necessary to practice the profession of nursing.”

To help new nurses develop critical-thinking skills, the professional development resources provider Lippincott Solutions recommended nurse educators focus on the following in the classroom:

Promoting interactions

Collaboration and learning in group settings help nursing students achieve a greater understanding of the content.

Asking open-ended questions

Open-ended questions encourage students to think about possible answers and respond without fear of giving a “wrong” answer.

Providing time for students to reflect on questions

Student nurses should be encouraged to deliberate and ponder questions and possible responses and understand that perhaps the immediate answer is not always the best answer.

Teaching for skills to transfer

Educators should provide opportunities for student nurses to see how their skills can apply to various situations and experiences.

In the Minority Nurse article, Lakhanigam also said students who thirst for knowledge and understanding make the best critical thinkers. The author said novice nurses who are open to constructive criticism can learn valuable lessons that will translate into successful practice.

At the same time, however, critical thinking skills alone will not ensure success in the profession , Lakhanigam said in the article. Other factors count as well.

“A combination of open-mindedness, a solid foundational knowledge of disease processes, and continuous learning, coupled with a compassionate heart and great clinical preceptors, can ensure that every new nurse will be a critical thinker positively affecting outcomes at the bedside,” Lakhanigam said.

Another element that ensures success as both an educator and student is earning a nursing degree from a school that focuses on student accomplishments. At Duquesne University’s School of Nursing, students learn best practices in healthcare. The online master’s in nursing program prepares educators to train the next generation of nurses.

About Duquesne University’s online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) Program

Duquesne University’s MSN curriculum for the Nursing Education and Faculty Role program focuses on preparing registered nurses (RNs) for careers as nurse educators. Students enrolled in the online master’s in nursing program learn the skills needed in the classroom and for clinical training. RNs learn how to empower student nurses to work to their fullest potential.

The MSN program is presented entirely online, so RNs can pursue their career goals and continue personal responsibilities simultaneously.  Duquesne University has been recognized for excellence in education as a U.S. News & World Report Best Online Graduate Nursing Program and best among Roman Catholic universities in the nation.

For more information, contact Duquesne University today.

Critical Thinking: A Vital Trait for Nurses: Minority Nurse

Consensus Descriptions of Core CT Skills And Sub-Skills: Delphi

Margaret McCartney: Nurses must be allowed to exercise professional judgment: BMJ

Predicting Success in Nursing Programs: Journal of College Teaching & Learning

Turning New Nurses Into Critical Thinkers: Wolters Kluwer


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  • Critical Thinking

Q&A: What is critical thinking and when would you use critical thinking in the clinical setting?

(Write 2-3 paragraphs)

In literature ‘critical thinking’ is often used, and perhaps confused, with problem-solving and clinical decision-making skills and clinical reasoning. In practice, problem-solving tends to focus on the identification and resolution of a problem, whilst critical thinking goes beyond this to incorporate asking skilled questions and critiquing solutions.

Critical thinking has been defined in many ways, but is essentially the process of deliberate, systematic and logical thinking, while considering bias or assumptions that may affect your thinking or assessment of a situation. In healthcare, the clinical setting whether acute care sector or aged care critical thinking has generally been defined as reasoned, reflective thinking which can evaluate the given evidence and its significance to the patient’s situation. Critical thinking occasionally involves suspension of one’s immediate judgment to adequately evaluate and appraise a situation, including questioning whether the current practice is evidence-based. Skills such as interpretation, analysis, evaluation, inference, explanation, and self-regulation are required to interpret thinking and the situation. A lack of critical thinking may manifest as a failure to anticipate the consequences of one’s actions.

Critical thinking is that mode of thinking – about any subject, content, or problem — in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully taking charge of the structures inherent in thinking and imposing intellectual standards upon them.

The Paul-Elder framework has three components:

  • The elements of thought (reasoning)
  • The intellectual standards that should be applied to the elements of reasoning
  • The intellectual traits associated with a cultivated critical thinker that result from the consistent and disciplined application of the intellectual standards to the elements of thought.

Critical thinking can be defined as, “the art of analysing and evaluating thinking with a view to improving it”. The eight Parts or Elements of Thinking involved in critical thinking:

  • All reasoning has a purpose (goals, objectives).
  • All reasoning is an attempt to figure something out, to settle some question, to solve some problem .
  • All reasoning is based on assumptions (line of reasoning, information taken for granted).
  • All reasoning is done from some point of view.
  • All reasoning is based on data, information and evidence .
  • All reasoning is expressed through, and shaped by, concepts and ideas .
  • All reasoning contains inferences or interpretations by which we draw conclusions and give meaning to data.
  • All reasoning leads somewhere or has implications and consequence.

Q&A: To become a 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 health care consumer or aged care consumer, and the type of problems nurses deal with in clinical practice when we engage in health care patient centred care. To think like a nurse requires that we learn the content of nursing; the ideas, concepts, ethics and theories of nursing and develop our intellectual capacities and skills so that we become disciplined, self-directed, critical thinkers.

As a nurse you are required to think about the entire patient/s and what you have learnt as a nurse including; ideas, theories, and concepts in nursing. It is important that we develop our skills so that we become highly proficient critical thinkers in nursing.

In nursing, critical thinkers need to be:

Nurses need to use language that will clearly communicate a lot of information that is key to good nursing care, for handover and escalation of care for improving patient safety and reducing adverse outcomes, some organisations use the iSoBAR (identify–situation–observations–background–agreed plan–read back) format. Firstly, the “i”, for “identify yourself and the patient”, placed the patient’s identity, rather than the diagnosis, in primary position and provided a method of introduction. (This is particularly important when teams are widely spread geographically.) The prompt, “S” (“situation”) “o” for “observations”, was included to provide an adequate baseline of factual information on which to devise a plan of care. and “B” (“background”), “A” “agreed plan” and “R” “read back” to reinforce the transfer of information and accountability.

In clinical practice experienced nurses engage in multiple clinical reasoning episodes for each patient in their care. An experienced nurse may enter a patient’s room and immediately observe significant data, draw conclusions about the patient and initiate appropriate care. Because of their knowledge, skill and experience the expert nurse may appear to perform these processes in a way that seems automatic or instinctive. However, clinical reasoning is a learnt skill.

Key critical thinking skills – the clinical reasoning cycle / critical thinking process

To support nursing students in the clinical setting, breakdown the critical thinking process into phases;

  • Decide/identify

This is a dynamic process and nurses often combine one or more of the phases, move back and forth between them before reaching a decision, reaching outcomes and then evaluating outcomes.

For nursing students to learn to manage complex clinical scenarios effectively, it is essential to understand the process and steps of clinical reasoning. Nursing students need to learn rules that determine how cues shape clinical decisions and the connections between cues and outcomes.

Start with the Patient – what is the issue? Holistic approach – describe or list the facts, people.

Collect information – Handover report, medical and nursing, allied health notes. Results, patient history and medications.

  • New information – patient assessment

Process Information – Interpret- data, signs and symptoms, normal and abnormal.

  • Analyse – relevant from non-relevant information, narrow down the information
  • Evaluate – deductions or form opinions and outcomes

Identify Problems – Analyse the facts and interferences to make a definitive diagnosis of the patients’ problem.

Establish Goals – Describe what you want to happen, desired outcomes and timeframe.

Take action – Select a course of action between alternatives available.

Evaluate Outcomes – The effectiveness of the actions and outcomes. Has the situation changed or improved?

Reflect on process and new learning – What have you learnt and what would you do differently next time.

Scenario: Apply the clinical reasoning cycle, see below, to a scenario that occurred with a patient in your clinical practice setting. This could be the doctor’s orders, the patient’s vital signs or a change in the patient’s condition.

(Write 3-5 paragraphs)

Clinical reasoning cycle - Critical Thinking - Thought Leadership

Important skills for critical thinking

Some skills are more important than others when it comes to critical thinking. The skills that are most important are:

  • Interpreting – Understanding and explaining the meaning of information, or a particular event.
  • Analysing – Investigating a course of action, that is based upon data that is objective and subjective.
  • Evaluating – This is how you assess the value of the information that you have. Is the information relevant, reliable and credible?

This skill is also needed to determine if outcomes have been fully reached.

Based upon those three skills, you can use clinical reasoning to determine what the problem is.

These decisions have to be based upon sound reasoning:

  • Explaining – Clearly and concisely explaining your conclusions. The nurse needs to be able to give a sound rationale for their answers.
  • Self-regulating – You have to monitor your own thought processes. This means that you must reflect on the process that lead to the conclusion. Be on alert for bias and improper assumptions.

Critical thinking pitfalls

Errors that occur in critical thinking in nursing can cause incorrect conclusions. This is particularly dangerous in nursing because an incorrect conclusion can lead to incorrect clinical actions.

Illogical Processes

A common illogical thought process is known as “appeal to tradition”. This is what people are doing when they say it’s always been done like this. Creative, new approaches are not tried because of tradition.

All people have biases. Critical thinkers are able to look at their biases and not let them compromise their thinking processes.

Biases can complicate decision making, communication and ultimately effect patient care.

Closed Minded

Being closed-minded in nursing is dangerous because it ignores other team members points of view. Essential input from other experts, as well as patients and their families are also ignored which ultimately impacts on patient care. This means that fewer clinical options are explored, and fewer innovative ideas are used for critical thinking to guide decision making.

So, no matter if you are an intensive care nurse, community health nurse or a nurse practitioner, you should always keep in mind the importance of critical thinking in the nursing clinical setting.

It is essential for nurses to develop this skill: not only to have knowledge but to be able to apply knowledge in anticipation of patients’ needs using evidence-based care guidelines.

American Management Association (2012). ‘AMA 2012 Critical Skills Survey: Executive Summary’. (2012). American Management Association. http://playbook.amanet.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/2012-Critical-Skills-Survey-pdf.pdf   Accessed 5 May 2020.

Korn, M. (2014). ‘Bosses Seek ‘Critical Thinking,’ but What Is That?,’ The Wall Street Journal . https://www.wsj.com/articles/bosses-seek-critical-thinking-but-what-is-that-1413923730?tesla=y&mg=reno64-wsj&url=http://online.wsj.com/article/SB12483389912594473586204580228373641221834.html#livefyre-comment Accessed 5 May 2020.

School of Nursing and Midwifery Faculty of Health, University of Newcastle. (2009). Clinical reasoning. Instructors resources. https://www.newcastle.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0010/86536/Clinical-Reasoning-Instructor-Resources.pdf  Accessed 11 May 2020

The Value of Critical Thinking in Nursing + Examples. Nurse Journal social community for nurses worldwide. 2020.  https://nursejournal.org/community/the-value-of-critical-thinking-in-nursing/ Accessed 8 May 2020.

Paul And Elder (2009) Have Defined Critical Thinking As: The Art of Analysing And Evaluating …

https://www.chegg.com/homework-help/questions-and-answers/paul-elder-2009-defined-critical-thinking-art-analyzing-evaluating-thinking-view-improving-q23582096 Accessed 8 May 2020 .

Cody, W.K. (2002). Critical thinking and nursing science: judgment, or vision? Nursing Science Quarterly, 15(3), 184-189.

Facione, P. (2011). Critical thinking: What it is and why it counts. Insight Assessment , ISBN 13: 978-1-891557-07-1.

McGrath, J. (2005). Critical thinking and evidence- based practice. Journal of Professional Nursing, 21(6), 364-371.

Porteous, J., Stewart-Wynne, G., Connolly, M. and Crommelin, P. (2009). iSoBAR — a concept and handover checklist: the National Clinical Handover Initiative. Med J Aust 2009; 190 (11): S152.

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