critical thinking in nursing

Thinking how to nurse is thinking like a nurse. Florence Nightingale (1860) wrote on her notes that women who have charge of the other’s health—to which the application of her integrated experiences must teach herself to think how to nurse, a self-learning acquired from “hints”.

Perhaps, Nightingale referred “hints” as the use of critical thinking skills in patient’s care. The ability to think critically was the foundation of nursing practice started from historic times and is becoming one of the key performance indicators for both students and nursing professionals nowadays.

Educational system continues to evolve and progresses heeding to the needs of the society, and parallel to the changing educational structure and methodology. However, Haber (2020) reported that only 75% of employers claim that the students they hire who underwent 12 or more years of formal education lack of critical thinking and problem-solving abilities despite the progress in the educational system.

What is Critical Thinking?

Critical thinking skills, a fundamental skill that plays a pivotal role in our daily survival. In general terms, the skill will not stop in memorization, the process goes beyond connecting the dots from one to concept to another, problem-solving techniques, think creatively, and apply the learned knowledge in new ways (Walden University, 2020). Kaminske (2019), defines critical thinking skills as a domain-specific skill on the ability to solve problems and make effective decisions that require expertise to be applied in a range of situations and scenarios.

In the nursing practice, Critical thinking skill works in assimilation with critical reasoning as a practice-based discipline of decision-making to the health care professionals. Critical thinking is the process of the intentional higher level of thinking to identify patient’s health care needs and appraise evidence-based practice to make choices in the delivery of care.

decision making

On the other hand, clinical reasoning as integrated to clinical thinking in application to clinical situation works as a cognitive process to utilized thinking strategies to gather and critically analyze the data concerning the health care needs of the patient, organized the information according to its prioritization, and formulate efficient nursing care plans to improve patient’s outcomes (Berman, et al., 2016).

“Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action”, a precise definition presented by Michael Scriven and Richard Paul at the Eighth Annual International Conference on Critical Thinking and Education Reform during the summer of 1987 (Lakhanigam, 2017).

Lakhanigam added the definition published by the Journal of Nursing Education in 2010 that describes critical thinking as the process involving interpretation and analysis of the problem, reasoning to find a solution, applying, and finally evaluation of the outcomes”. Regis College (2020), emphasized the use of deductive reasoning in observation, analyzing information, formulate conclusions, and performing appropriate actions in a self-directed process.

Theories on the Physiology of Thinking

From the ancient theory of “tabula rasa”, as describes in Wikipedia (2020) that humans are born without built-in mental content, and all knowledge is collected by the brain from experiences and perceptions. In this computer age, a neurologist discovered neurological pathways on how to re-program or reformat our brains like computers by analyzing how the brain appears to process, recognize, remember and transfer information at the level of neural circuits, synapses and neurotransmitters. Willis (2012) discussed the brain’s neuroplastic response to stimulation called neuroplasticity. The information is processed in the reflective and cognitive functions of prefrontal cortex wherein learning incorporated into networks of longterm conceptual memory.

Neuroplasticity is greatly affected by stress, boredom and frustration as seen in the neuroimaging scans of students showed that active metabolic states block the processing in the prefrontal cortex. In response to stress, the amygdala as the switching station became hyperactive resulting to switches of input and output away from the prefrontal cortex down to the control of the lower reactive brain, this response is called fight/flight/freeze (act out/zone out). In this situation, the lower brain’s reactive behaviours are in control. This will result in the loss of information access to the prefrontal cortex and new learning is not retained.

Elseways, Knowles (1984) four principles of andragogy of adult learning included (a.) experiences from mistakes that provide the basis for the learning activities; and (b.) the importance of problems and crisis, as adult learning is problem-centred rather than content-oriented; as well as (c.) involvement in the planning and evaluation of learning; and lastly, (d.) that adults are most interested in a subject that is relevant to their job and personal life.

Learning and thinking as applied in a higher-level context, Ausubel’s assimilation theory may recount the theories on critical thinking. In this theory, Ausubel claimed that learning occurs as a result of the interaction between the acquired learning and the cognitive structure in application to practice (Seel, 2012). Moreover, critical analysis and differentiation of interrelationships between concepts called concept mapping refines the knowledge into a more organized, precise, specific, and integrated learning.

In different circumstances, nursing as a professional working in a toxic environment of the sick, pained, hopeless, weak, and dying patients; bullying, queen bee syndrome, and seniority egoism of colleagues; and backbreaking workloads—have reported cases of work-related boredom and stress. The application of the three theories may improve mentoring-learning strategies in meaningful nursing education and training.

Theories on learning acquisition from the collection of information, physiologic processing on cognitive-reflective functions of the brain, concept mapping, and internal/external utilization of knowledge in application to critical thinking are the frameworks of a skilled critical thinker.

Characteristics of a Skilled Critical-Thinker

Health care system can go a long way, achieving a considerable success having employees that possess the ability to think critically thus decreasing errors in clinical judgments. For this purpose, every nurse is required to obtain the characteristics of an excellent skilled critical thinker.

The study of Scheffer and Rubenfeld revealed the common qualities among internationally diverse expert nurses from nine different countries supporting the idea of critical thinking in nursing that encompasses logic and reasoning (Berman, et. Al., 2016), and that includes:

11 Affective Components of a Skilled Critical-Thinker Nurse:

  • Perseverance
  • Open-mindedness
  • Flexibility
  • Confidence
  • Creativity
  • Inquisitiveness
  • Reflection
  • Intellectual integrity
  • Intuition
  • Contextual
  • Perspective

7 Cognitive Skills of a Skilled Critical-Thinker Nurse:

  • Information seeking
  • Discriminating
  • Analyzing
  • Transforming knowledge
  • Predicting
  • Applying standards
  • Logical reasoning

Critical Thinking Beyond Exigency and Expediency

Undeniably, nurses with critical thinking ability diversified with effective problem-solving and efficient decision-making skills are the most in-demand and highly valued in the field of the health care industry and academe.

As a nurse striding in the most complicated, stressful and multi-tasking job, you are responsible for making life-changing decisions under the pressure of time and emotions. These reasons as to why critical thinking skills in nursing practice plays a vital role in the care of the patient. Luna (2020), cited seven importance of critical thinking skills in the practice of nursing, such as:

  1. Nurses’ Critical Thinking Heavily Impacts Patient Care
  2. It’s Vital to Recognizing Shifts in Patient Status
  3. It’s Integral to an Honest and Open Exchange of Ideas
  4. It Allows You to Ensure Patient Safety
  5. It Helps Nurses Find Quick Fixes and Troubleshooting
  6. Critical Thinking can Lead to Innovative Improvements
  7. It Plays a Role in Rational Decision Making

Critical thinking skill is needed in problems identification and implementation of interventions resulting in improved patients outcomes, as well as development in nursing practice by providing new insights on the learned knowledge. Feedback and reflections provide interconnections between nursing research, critical thinking and the nursing practice (Berman, et. Al., 2016).

Critical Thinking Skills: The Mastery, Update and Upgrade

Critical thinking skill is an ability beyond thinking rationally and clearly. It is a process of thinking independently and working at your own feet in formulating own opinions or new theory by utilizing critical analysis on the interrelationship of two or more ideas and delineating conclusions without external control (Wabisabi Learning, 2020).

Modified Wabisabi Learning’s 12 Solid Strategies for Teaching Critical Thinking Skills, and its Application to Nursing Education, Training and Practice:

1. Practice on Eloquence in Question and Answer (Solution Fluency)

Mastery requires ample amount of practice to become highly skilled in critical thinking. Accustom to deliberate open discussions encouraging brainstorming on issues affecting the practice and daily living by using explicit open-ended questions and comprehensive instructions for problem-solving may provide opportunities to apply knowledge into practice as well as encouraging the transfer of ideas between domains (Haber, 2020). Brainstorming is an excellent learning tool to exercise critical thinking (Walden University, 2020) particularly if applied in a situational crisis or a hospital scenario.

2. Create a Foundation

From the theory of back to basic, mastery of low-level skills is a requirement in preparatory to the application of critical thinking skills (Kaminske, 2019).

Learning experiences from theoretical and experiential knowledge are good foundations to start critical thinking. Moreover, practicing thinking skills obtained from theoretical and experiential undertakings improve intellectual ability (Berman, et. al., 2016). Practical understanding and specialization on a particular focus may excel you more in thinking critically. The competence and skills acquired from clinical experience are the most essential learning in developing clinical judgment.

3. Consult the Classics

Nursing theorists and their work are the best examples of consulting the classics. In critical thinking, nurses identify claims based on facts, conclusions, judgment/opinions and evidence-based practice. Exploring nursing theorists and their works are like exploring great minds, acquiring lessons on character motivation, refuting theories or formulating a new theory from existing theory. Case studies and in-depth objective critiques of nursing theories may not only promote critical thinking but act as a leverage to bridge the gap between theory and practice.

4. Create an Environment for Open Communication

During clinical rounds, nurses and/or students with a clinical instructor are engaged into thinking process by providing the opportunity to communicate assessment data, collaborate ideas, formulate nursing care plan, and discuss the various context of the situation from different perspectives (Di Vito-Thomas, 2005).

5. Use Information Fluency

Information fluency is mastering the proper use of information and to the ability to intuitively analyze and interpret it in unearthing knowledge and appropriate facts useful in solving a problem (Wabisabi Learning, 2020).

Knowledge of medical conditions, procedures and its connections to patient’s care are important in building critical thinking. Learning from available resources like medical journals, surfing the internet, and meaningful dialogue with colleagues can increase your medical know-how (Jillings, 2020).

6. Utilize Peer Groups

Peer groups, particularly well experienced and highly skilled colleagues are an excellent source of information, questions, and problem-solving techniques as it expands thinking and viewpoints. It also develops interpersonal skills like teamwork and resolving conflicts (Berman, et. Al., 2016).

7. Try One Sentence of Reflections at a time

Reflections will teach the learner to apply their knowledge, logic and reasoning by explaining themselves in a low-pressure setting. It provides an opportunity to explore situations with a different approach and better solutions for future use (Jillings, 2020).

The mastery of metacognition helps the learner to use reflection in defining clinical experiences and explore ways on how to improve it. Recollecting facts and events in patient’s care may integrate the learner into different concepts by connecting different ideas from one another (Di Vito-Thomas, 2005).

8. Problem-solving with Reasoning

Understanding rationale, the sets of reasons or logical basis for a course of action assist the learners to gain a broad knowledge of the topic and promotes a higher level of understanding. Problem-solving guided by rationale is a technique to the use of deductive and inductive reasoning in the thinking process (Di Vito-Thomas, 2005).

9. Roleplaying and Return Demonstration

Role-playing is a self-directed activity that encourages analytic and creative thinking. It helps the learner to internalize empathy while compromising in portraying a role or another persona creating a wider chance for memory retention.

Practice and repetition of observed procedures during return demonstration creates an avenue for re-thinking ways on how to do a task properly with ease in your own phase as you implement it by yourself.

10. Thinking and Speaking With Sketch (Concept Mapping)

Incorporating a concept with multiple perspectives and connecting complex ideas in a structured way to search for potential solutions. These processes create an abstract concept that encourages logical arguments used in critical thinking (Kaminske, 2019).

Interactive activities such as case study with a panel discussion, observing clinical dynamics during in-depth arguments, making a multidisciplinary joint care plan for patient promotes an environment for critical thinking thus facilitating the development of clinical judgment (Di Vito-Thomas, 2005).

11. Do Some Prioritizing and Decision-making

Make critical thinking as a culture and not just an activity by encouraging decision-making. Prioritizing through analyzing information, applying knowledge, and evaluating a prospected solution are the cornerstones of decision-making. This will allows the learner to apply learned theories to a different scenario by weighing the advantages and disadvantages of different solutions and option in deciding best practices.

12. Correct Misconceptions and Personal Bias

Personal beliefs greatly influence one’s ability to think critically as people always seek out ideas that conform to their own beliefs (Kaminske (2019). Several factors that act as the pitfalls in critical thinking are misconceptions, personal bias, and assumptions—which can bring a learner into a wrong direction. A discussion with colleagues who have mastery in evidence-based practice and conducting more in-depth investigations can give ideas and extends point of view (Jillings, 2020).

Conclusion and Suggestions:

Analytical skills through keen observation, understanding important data, and identifying a pattern of recognition; problem-solving capacity by connecting relationship of phenomena, data interpretation guided by significance and rationale; and use of reflection and evaluation abilities in formulating conclusion are the important factors in clinical judgment and decision-making.

Critical thinking is a learned skill resulted from a rolled-up innate curiosity in the application of strong theoretical and experiential foundations in solving clinical problems that direct to the best care decision, which produce positive patient outcomes and improve patient care services.

In this era of technological advancement where machine replaces almost of everything, critical thinking still plays an important role in the nursing practice. Nurses who can manipulate complex clinical situations with efficient skills on critical/analytical thinking, problem-solving and decision-making are often in the front line to compete for the position with greater autonomy and higher chances for opportunities.


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