Every nursing shift brings new patients, challenges, and choices. In a fast-paced environment where there’s no room for mistakes, nurses must be able to think critically and make the right decisions before moving on from one situation to another. “Critical thinking” is often touted as one of the most important skills a nurse can possess, but what exactly is critical thinking? Why is critical thinking important in nursing? Moreover, is it an innate skill, or can it be learned?

What Is Critical Thinking in Nursing?

Critical thinking is the 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.” It’s based on accuracy, sound evidence, fairness, and other universally accepted intellectual values. Put simply, it’s the ability to be objective. Rather than allow emotions or opinions to guide their beliefs and actions, critical thinkers are driven by facts.

According to Edward M. Glaser, critical thinking contains three components:

  • A wise, problem-solving attitude
  • Knowledge of methods of logical investigation
  • The skills to apply those methods

As a nurse, your overall goal is to improve patient outcomes. Critical thinking is important in nursing because if all healthcare providers can think critically and utilize evidence-based decision-making, there’s a better chance of improving patient outcomes. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) lists critical thinking as one of the most important qualities a nurse can have, alongside qualities like communication and organizational skills and emotional stability.

Thinking Critically Under Stress

The fight-or-flight response is a physiological reaction that occurs when there is a perceived threat to survival. When our brain registers this threat, our bodies are flooded with stress hormones, such as adrenaline and norepinephrine. Heart rates increase, pupils dilate, and muscles tense up. The fight-or-flight response may have helped our distant ancestors take down mammoths, but it’s far less helpful when rushing to make an important decision regarding a patient’s care plan. Worse still is when a patient is in a life-or-death situation and their survival depends on poise under pressure.

If your goal is to work in a hospital, especially in an intensive care unit (ICU), you must be able to think critically in all manner of situations. By cultivating your critical thinking skills, you can respond appropriately even when your heart is pounding and your thoughts are racing.

Cultivating Critical Thinking Skills

In order to think critically, it’s not enough to be able to recite medical information verbatim. Critical thinkers are always logical and unbiased in their assessments, challenging the accuracy of information and beliefs when they have cause to doubt them. Although some are naturally inquisitive, all nurses can develop their innate curiosity, medical knowledge, and ability to think on their feet.

Become a Lifelong Learner

Looking at the three components of critical thinking, your first step in developing your skill set is to develop a wise, problem-solving attitude. Nurses are no longer the untrained caregivers of the past. Today, nurses play a vital role in patient-centered care, often assisting doctors by contributing to care plans, analyzing diagnostic tests, administering medicine, and monitoring vital signs. As the duties of a nurse continue to evolve and expand, nurses can excel by remaining open-minded and becoming lifelong learners.

Build a Repository of Experience

The second component of critical thinking is the knowledge of methods of logical investigation. Essentially, your goal is to develop a repository of medical knowledge to draw upon when making decisions. Medical knowledge can be obtained from years of experience, guidance from colleagues, and academic programs like those offered by The University of Texas Permian Basin. As a registered nurse (RN), it’s likely that your academic and working experiences already shape your decision-making. If that’s the case, you’re already employing one of the tenets of critical thinking.

Allow Logic to Guide Your Behavior

The ability to not only understand medical knowledge but effectively apply it to your decision-making may be the most difficult component of critical thinking to adopt. Fortunately, you’re not alone. In addition to staying up-to-date on best practices, you can draw upon the experience of doctors, educators, and fellow nurses. No one knows more about critical thinking than the professionals who’ve spent years in your role. Over time, you’ll be able to calmly and effectively apply your skills to help patients regardless of the medical, cultural, or linguistic challenges facing you.

Gain Critical Thinking Skills While Advancing Your Career

Critical thinking is absolutely a skill set that can be developed with the help of an online RN to BS in Nursing program. At UT Permian Basin, we can empower you with the critical thinking skills needed to excel in your current position and the leadership skills needed to advance your career.

With the exception of leadership clinical experiences, our program is asynchronous and 100% online, and there’s no travel required. Remain in your current nursing role while continuing your education on your own time and at your own pace. In as little as eight months, you can complete our online RN to BS in Nursing program and receive a Nurse Management Certificate from Sigma Theta Tau Nursing Honor Society. During those eight months, you’ll gain first-rate instruction accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE).

UT Permian Basin’s online RN to BS in Nursing program offers the education and experiences needed to prosper in a leadership role. The critical thinking, management, and transcultural nursing skills taught in our virtual classrooms will prove indispensable in your nursing career. By enrolling in our online RN to BS in Nursing program, you’ll not only be more capable of stepping into a leadership role but also better able to assist the patients under your care. 

Learn more about UT Permian Basin’s online RN to BS in Nursing program.