In recent years, critical thinking skills have been recognized as a necessary component of nursing education. There’s an obvious reason for this: health care today is a complex, dynamic and high-tech environment, and bedside nurses have to make complex decisions on a daily basis in order to deliver safe, effective patient care.
What does critical thinking mean for nurses?
The Alfaro-LeFevres 4-Circle Critical Thinking Model provides a visual representation of critical thinking abilities that nurses can use to make connections between nursing research and nursing practice. Nurses must:
- Build their critical thinking characteristics, such as creativity, patience and confidence.
- Seek out learning experiences and experiential knowledge to build their intellectual skills and competencies.
- Build their interpersonal skills (teamwork, resolving conflict, taking and learning from constructive criticism) and competencies.
- Practice their technical skills until they are second nature.
(Derived from Pearson)
How can nurses develop their critical thinking skills?
Nurses and particularly nurse managers must function in a highly complex environment. Many have risen to their current positions based on their competence in a clinical role, without any formal training or experience in leadership and management skills. But by far, the most effective way nurses can expand their critical thinking skills is through education.
Nurses need to learn to think critically about unfamiliar areas like finance, budgeting, staffing, strategic planning, and quality assurance. Without critical thinking skills, nurse managers can’t make day-to-day decisions strategically, with an eye toward advancing the goals of the organization.
What educational programs should nurses consider to expand their critical thinking skills?
Depending on nurses’ level and professional goals, there are different educational options that will help them build the skills to solve critical issues, achieve positive patient outcomes and make difficult decisions in the dynamic healthcare environment. Here are the programs available at American Sentinel University:
- Registered Nurse to B.S. Nursing – An accelerated nursing degree program for RNs with associate degrees in nursing
- Registered Nurse to M.S. Nursing – A fast-track program that enables RNs to earn their BSN and MSN degrees (with five specializations in Case Management, Infection Prevention and Control, Nursing Informatics, Nursing Education, and Nursing Management and Organizational Leadership)
- M.S. Nursing – A program for experienced nurses (with seven specializations in Case Management, Infection Prevention and Control, Nursing Informatics, Nursing Education, Nursing Management and Organizational Leadership, Adult Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner and Family Nurse Practitioner)
- Doctor of Nursing Practice – A program for nurse leaders seeking advanced education, with four specializations to choose from: Educational Leadership, Executive Leadership, Informatics Leadership and Professional Leadership
- Infection Prevention and Control Certificate – A certificate for clinicians, nurses, physicians, managers, non-nurse practitioners, infection control team members and others seeking knowledge they need to develop best practices for infection prevention and control
How does critical thinking help nurses in their careers?
Through critical thinking skills, nurses can become transformational leaders. They can challenge assumptions, develop a more robust understanding of problems’ underlying causes, and generate more creative solutions to everyday problems in hospitals and other places where they work.
Put simply, without these skills, nurses might fall back on reactive, automatic responses to problems and miss the multitude of opportunities to make changes that are visionary and goal driven. Critical thinking and reasoning help nurses define the problems that patients are facing and make intentional, intelligent choices about how to implement programs of care for those patients. It helps them problem solve by obtaining information and evaluating solutions before choosing the best course of action.
Critical thinking affects more than individual nurses
By its very nature, nursing involves a lot of thinking, planning, assessment and trial and error. Interestingly, when nurses engage in critical thinking, they impact others.
In 2010, a group of nurse researchers designed a study that would allow them to measure the effects of a manager’s critical thinking skills on the attitude of the floor nurses that person was managing. They concluded that nurse managers with stronger critical thinking skills were better able to create positive practice environments that correlated with higher job satisfaction and better retention of staff nurses. Nurses who work in a positive environment are thought to be less susceptible to the effects of burnout, putting them in a better position to deliver high-quality care and keep patients safe.
A Medscape article about critical thinking skills for nurse managers illustrated, with a hypothetical example, the difference a strong leader can make:
- It presented a case study about a manager facing a scheduling conflict over the holidays. In the past, staff nurses with seniority were given first choice of days off, leaving more junior nurses dissatisfied.
- The reactive way of thinking would continue on with this same policy – without challenging current assumptions about seniority, fairness, and staff satisfaction.
- A manager with critical thinking skills might look at alternatives that improve staff satisfaction and enhance the goal of self-governance – and then form a unit committee to produce a holiday schedule with sufficient staffing.
How can nurses develop critical thinking skills of individual nurses
To further develop critical thinking skills outside of clinical areas, nurse managers can adopt the following habits:
- Suspend judgment, and demonstrate open-mindedness for other departments and other views. This allows you to work as a team with other leaders, and to balance the goals and interests of various departments – which benefits the organization as a whole.
- When confronted with a problem or situation, seek out the truth by actively investigating a problem or situation.
- Ask questions about anything you may not fully understand and never be afraid to admit to a lack of knowledge. Gathering data in this way is crucial to making informed decisions, and to building a full understanding of both your organization and the current industry environment.
- Reflect on your own thinking process and the ways in which you reach a conclusion. Identifying a personal bias is the first step toward eliminating it, allowing you to move toward more objective or multi-dimensional ways of thinking.
- Look for a mentor with more experience than you have and join professional organizations, in order to gain experiential knowledge and build a network of colleagues whom you could turn to for advice when needed?
The Medscape article mentioned above also describes this innovative way to further develop critical thinking skills:
One way nurse managers can develop critical thinking is to start writing in a reflective journal. Establishing a consistent routine of writing at least weekly in a journal can improve critical thinking (Profetta-McGrath, 2005). Writing about critical incidents, complex situations that require decision making, as well as emotions and feelings about interactions and events stimulate analysis, synthesis, judgment, and creativity that are components of critical thinking. Through the process of writing, connections are made between theory and practice. Patterns of behaviors are recognized and a hypothesis may be formed that can lead to a change in practice (Profetta-McGrath, 2005).
Education is the way
As mentioned, the best way for nurses to expand their critical thinking skills is through education. When you acquire a broader view of healthcare, from a systems and policy perspective, you equip yourself to make strategic decisions at the managerial or executive level. Highly effective nurse leaders know this, and have made education their ally.
American Sentinel’s online BSN program enables nurses to expand their thinking and build upon the knowledge and insights they have gained throughout their careers as Registered Nurses, whether they work in the hospital setting, a clinic, community health, or elsewhere.
Our MSN, Nursing Management and Organizational Leadership specialization degree is designed for experienced nurse professional who seek to develop both management and leadership skills. Through case studies and hands-on course work, nurses examine the various human resource challenges facing an organization as well as the dynamic nature of the strategic planning and management processes.
And of course, we have many other educational programs to choose from. Explore your options today.
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