By Megan Ruesink
The nursing profession tends to attract those who have natural nurturing abilities, a desire to help others and a knack for science or anatomy. But there is another important skill that successful nurses share and it’s often over-looked: the ability to think critically.
Critical thinking is defined in a number of ways but perhaps it’s easiest to comprehend when you understand all that it encompasses. Critical thinking includes identifying a problem, determining the best solution and choosing the most effective method of reaching that solution. 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, there’s a lot more that goes into critical thinking than one might think. It’s a transferrable skill that can be leveraged in several facets of your life. But why is critical thinking in nursing so critical? Keep reading to find out.
Why are critical thinking skills in nursing important?
You’ll notice in the list above that critical thinking is embedded in a nurse’s everyday routine. You’ll learn all sorts of practical skills in nursing school that you’ll put to use at the clinic, but without the ability to think clearly and make rational decisions; those skills alone won’t get you very far.
You may be able to flawlessly dress a wound, take vitals like a pro or give an IV without flinching, but without the ability to make quick and efficient decisions under pressure, you’ll struggle as a nurse, according to LeeAnn Andronico, Rasmussen College nursing program coordinator. Some critical thinking skills come naturally and others can be acquired and developed during nursing school.
How are critical thinking skills acquired in nursing school?
As a future nurse you have probably heard about the intensity of nursing courses, if not yet experienced it firsthand. There is a multitude of material to master and high expectations for your performance. But in order to learn in a way that will actually equip you to become an excellent nurse, you have to go beyond just memorizing terms. Andronico says in reality, the answer won’t always be black and white.
Your critical thinking skills will be put to the test during nursing exams. Andronico explains that you’ll quickly discover that questions may have multiple “right” answers—though one answer may be “the most right” for that particular situation. This may sound confusing, but it is intentionally done in order to help prepare you for real-life nursing scenarios. You will often find yourself in situations where there are few “correct” forms of care, but one that is most appropriate.
How can you develop your critical thinking skills?
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.
“Critical thinking skills apply not only to thinking, but also to reading, writing, speaking and listening.”
Changing your mindset will help you gain the practical knowledge from which you’ll draw upon throughout your entire career. Hold on to your past exams, review the answers and reflect on any areas you didn’t quite grasp the first time.
Borrowing or purchasing an NCLEX review book is another way you can sharpen your critical thinking skills. Not only are the questions directly related to the career you’re pursuing, but the book explains the rationale behind the answers, exposing you to solutions you may not have found on your own.
It’s helpful to practice thinking about a problem in a different way or from a new perspective. It sounds silly, but you essentially have to think about thinking! Andronico stresses the importance of spending time developing clear and rational thoughts and surveying all of the evidence available to you before making a decision.
How are critical thinking skills applied in the real world?
Andronico believes the critical thinking skills you acquire in nursing courses and during clinicals will be invaluable throughout your nursing career and the rest of your life. 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. But critical thinking goes beyond the clinic and is a skill the will be transferable into the rest of your life as well. Your ability to make sound decisions in high pressure situations will surely come in handy at home as well.
“Critical thinking skills apply not only to thinking, but also to reading, writing, speaking and listening,” Andronico explains. “You must be able to translate a thought clearly and accurately, quickly and logically so that others understand what you are saying without any confusion.”
*This article was originally published in July 2012 by LeeAnn Andronico. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2015. Insight included from Andronico was preserved from the original article