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Enhancing Critical Thinking in Clinical Practice

Implications for Critical and Acute Care Nurses

Shoulders, Bridget MS, ACNP-BC, CCRN-CMC; Follett, Corrinne MS, FNP-BC, CCRN, RN-BC, RCIS; Eason, Joyce MS, ANP-BC, RN-BC

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Dimensions of Critical Care Nursing: July/August 2014 - Volume 33 - Issue 4 - p 207-214
doi: 10.1097/DCC.0000000000000053
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The complexity of patients in the critical and acute care settings requires that nurses be skilled in early recognition and management of rapid changes in patients’ condition. Caring for patients with complex conditions, decreased length of stay, sophisticated technology, and increasing demands on time challenges new and experienced nurses alike to use astute critical thinking in clinical decision making. The decisions made directly affect patient care outcomes.1 Bedside nurses, preceptors, and nurse leaders play a pivotal role in the development of critical thinking ability in the clinical setting. The purposes of this article were to explore the concept of critical thinking and to provide nurses with practical strategies to enhance critical thinking in clinical practice.


Critical thinking is a learned process2 that occurs within and across all domains. There are numerous definitions of critical thinking in the literature, often described in terms of its components, features, and characteristics. Peter Facione, an expert in the field of critical thinking, led a group of experts from various disciplines to establish a consensus definition of critical thinking. The Delphi Report,3 published in 1990, characterized the ideal critical thinker as “habitually inquisitive, well-informed, trustful of reason…, diligent in seeking relevant information, and persistent in seeking results.” Although this definition was the most comprehensive attempt to define critical thinking4 at the time, it was not nursing specific.

Scheffer and Rubenfeld4 used the Delphi technique to define critical thinking in nursing. An international panel of expert nurses in practice, education, and research provided input into what habits of the mind and cognitive skills were at the core of critical thinking. After discussion and analysis, the panel provided the following consensus statement: “Critical thinking in nursing is an essential component of professional accountability and quality nursing care. Critical thinkers in nursing exhibit these habits of the mind: confidence, contextual perspective, creativity, flexibility, inquisitiveness, intellectual integrity, intuition, open-mindedness, perseverance, and reflection. Critical thinkers in nursing practice the cognitive skills of analyzing, applying standards, discriminating, information seeking, logical reasoning, predicting and transforming knowledge.” This definition expanded on the consensus definition in the Delphi Report to include the additional components of creativity and intuition.

Skilled critically thinking nurses respond quickly to changes in patients’ conditions, changing priorities of care based on the urgency of the situation. They accurately interpret data, such as subtle changes in vital signs or laboratory values.5 They are not just looking at the numbers but also assessing the accuracy and relevancy of the findings. Critical thinking helps the nurse to recognize events as part of the bigger picture and center in on the problem.

Lack of critical thinking is evident when nurses depend heavily on structured approaches, such as protocols, to make clinical decisions. These guidelines should not be viewed as mandates because the practice is always more complex than what can be captured by pathways and protocols.6 Without critical thinking, nurses are merely performing task-oriented care.

One example of how nurses use critical thinking is with medication administration. This task may appear to be primarily a technical process, but it requires astute critical thinking. Eisenhauer and Hurley7 interviewed 40 nurses to illustrate their thinking processes during medication administration. The nurses described communicating with providers, sharing their interpretation of patient data to ensure safe administration of medication. They used their judgment about the timing of as-needed medication (eg, timing pain medication before physical therapy). Nurses integrated their knowledge of the patient’s laboratory values or pattern of response to medication to determine the need for a change in the drug dose or time. They assessed whether a medication was achieving the desired effect and took precautionary measures in anticipating potential side effects. It is evident in these examples that safe administration of medication involves critical thinking beyond the 5 rights that nurses are taught in the academic setting .


Nursing research is a scientific process that validates and refines existing knowledge and generates new knowledge that influences nursing practice.8 Evidence-based practice integrates the best available research with clinical expertise and patient’s needs and values. Different types of evidence have different strengths and weaknesses in terms of credibility. The typical evidence hierarchy places meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials at the top and expert opinion at the bottom of what counts as good evidence.6

It is important to recognize that nursing knowledge is not always evidence based. Nurses have historically acquired knowledge through a variety of nonscientific sources such as trial and error, role modeling, tradition, intuition, and personal experiences.8 Although these sources have been “handed down” over the years and continue to influence nursing practice, nurses are expected to use the best available evidence to guide their decision making. Evidence-based practice redirects nursing from making decisions based on tradition to practicing based on the best research evidence.

Barriers for nurses to implement evidence-based practices include lack of knowledge of research, difficulty interpreting findings and applying to practice, lack of time, and lack of autonomy to implement changes.9 Universities can overcome these barriers by incorporating nursing research throughout all clinical and nonclinical courses. Joint endeavors between hospitals and universities to educate nurses in the use of research will increase the level of comfort with evidence-based practice.10 Specialized research departments devoted to promotion and education of staff nurses in research evaluation, utilization, and implementation would allow nursing staff to experience an increased level of support and awareness of the need for research utilization.

Nurse leaders need to create an environment that supports transformation from outdated practices and traditions. Nurses must feel empowered to question nursing practice and have available resources to support the search for evidence. Critical thinking and evidence-based practice must be connected and integrated for nurses, starting in their basic education programs and fostered throughout their lifetime.11


The nursing process is the nurse’s initial introduction to a thinking process used to collect, analyze, and solve patient care problems. The steps of the nursing process are similar to the scientific method. In both processes, information is gathered, observations are made, problems are identified, plans are developed, actions are taken, and processes are reviewed for effectiveness.8 The nursing process, used as a framework for making clinical judgments, helps guide nurses to think about what they do in their practice.

Chabeli12 described how critical thinking can be facilitated using the framework of the nursing process. During the assessment phase, the nurse systematically gathers information to identify the chief complaint and other health problems. The nurse uses critical thinking to examine and interpret the data, separating the relevant from the irrelevant and clarifying the meaning when necessary. During the diagnosis phase, nurses use the diagnostic reasoning process to draw conclusions and decide whether nursing intervention is indicated. The planning and implementation of interventions should be mutual, research based, and realistic and have measurable expected outcomes. The evaluation phase addresses the effectiveness of the plan of care and is ongoing as the patient progresses toward goal achievement. The author concludes that when the nursing process is used effectively for the intended purpose, it is a powerful scientific vehicle for facilitating critical thinking.


Nurses initially learn to think critically in the academic environment, using assessments designed to measure critical thinking. It is conceivable that a nurse could pass an examination in the classroom but have difficulty making the transition to think critically in the clinical setting. Improving critical thinking ability should be viewed as a process and, as with the development of any skill, requires practice.13

Most nurses develop their critical thinking ability as they gain clinical expertise. Patricia Benner14 described the development of clinical expertise, as nurses transition from novice to expert. The beginning, or novice nurse, has theoretical knowledge as a foundation and minimal practical experiences to draw from. As similar situations are encountered, experience is accrued over time as the nurse evolves toward competency. As proficiency is developed, the nurse is able to perceive situations as a whole and recognize the significant aspects. As the proficient nurse reaches toward expertise, decision making becomes automatic, drawing from the enormous background of experience acquired over the years. Experience is more than the passage of time and is required at each stage before progressing to the next level of clinical expertise. As nurses progress along the novice-to-expert continuum and gain competence, they develop their ability to think critically.15

Preceptors play a significant role in transitioning nurses into professional practice. It is essential that preceptors have the necessary skills to facilitate the critical thinking development of new nurses. Forneris and Peden-McAlpine16 investigated the impact of the preceptor’s coaching component of a reflective learning intervention on novice nurses’ critical thinking skills. The following coaching strategies were used to educate preceptors: context (eg, understanding the big picture), dialogue, reflection, and time (eg, the use of past experiences to discern change over time). After completing the educational intervention, the preceptors used these strategies to coach the novice nurses in the development of their critical thinking skills. This study found that these strategies stimulated the novice nurses to engage in an intentional, reflective dialogue. The preceptors acknowledged a change in their preceptor style, moving from describing critical thinking as prioritizing and organizing task to a dialogue to share thinking and understand rationale.

Nurses must have the necessary dispositions (eg, attributes, attitudes, habits of the mind) to be effective critical thinkers.11 Finn17 defined thinking dispositions that influence critical thinking. Open mindedness was described as the willingness to seek out and consider new evidence or possibilities. Fair mindedness referred to an unprejudiced examination of evidence that might question beliefs or a viewpoint contrary to the nurse’s own beliefs. Reflectiveness was described as the willingness to gather relevant evidence to carefully evaluate an issue, rather than making hasty judgments. Counterfactual thinking referred to the willingness to ponder what could or would happen if the facts were considered under different conditions or perspectives. The opposite thinking styles directed toward maintaining the status quo included being close minded, biased, and rigid.

Rung-Chaung et al18 investigated the critical thinking competence and disposition of nurses at different rankings on the clinical ladder. Using Benner’s novice to expert model as their theoretical framework, a stratified random sampling of 2300 nurses working at a medical center were classified according to their position on the clinical ladder. Ten to fifteen percent of this population were randomly selected for each ladder group, with the final sample size totaling 269. Data were collected using a modified version of the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal tool, designed to assess critical thinking competence in the categories of inference, recognition of assumptions, deduction, interpretation, and evaluation. The participants’ cumulative average score for critical thinking competence was 61.8 of a possible score of 100, ranking highest in interpretation and lowest in inference. Participants completed a modified version of the California Critical Thinking Disposition Inventory, designed to measure the following characteristics of critical thinking: inquisitiveness, systematic analytical approach, open mindedness, and reflective thinking. Participants scored highest in reflective thinking and lowest in inquisitiveness.

Analysis of the data indicated that older nurses with more years of experience and a more prominent position on the clinical ladder were predictive of a higher critical thinking disposition. Overall, critical thinking was shown to be only partially developed. The authors recommended training programs, such as problem-based learning, group discussion, role-playing, and concept mapping be adopted to enhance nurse critical thinking skills.

Chang el al19 examined the relationship between critical thinking and nursing competence, using the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal and the Nursing Competence Scale. A total of 570 clinical nurses participated in the study. These nurses scored highest in interpretation ability and lowest in inference ability. These findings were consistent with the results reported in the Rung-Chuang study. Analysis of the data indicated that critical thinking ability was significantly higher in older nurses and nurses with more than 5 years of experience. The findings of this study indicated that critical thinking ability, working years, position/title, and education level were the 4 significant predictors of nursing competence. There were significantly positive correlations between critical thinking ability and nursing competence, indicating that the higher the critical thinking ability, the better the nursing competence is.


To improve critical thinking, the learning needs of nurses must first be identified. The Performance Based Development System, a scenario-based tool, was used in a study to identify critical thinking learning needs of 2144 new and experienced nurses.20 Results were reported as either meeting (identifying the appropriate actions) or not meeting the expectations. Most participants (74.9%) met the expectations by identifying the appropriate actions. Of the approximately 25% who did not meet the expectations, the learning needs identified included initiating appropriate nursing interventions (97.2%), differentiating urgency (67%), reporting essential clinical data (65.4%), anticipating relevant medical orders (62.8%), understanding decision rationale (62.6%), and problem recognition (57.1%). As expected, nurses with the most experience had the highest rate of identifying the appropriate actions on the Performance-Based Development System assessment. These findings were consisted with Benner’s novice to expert framework. These types of assessment tools can be used to identify learning needs and help facilitate individualized orientation. The authors acknowledged that further research is needed to identify areas of critical thinking deficiency and to test objective, educational strategies that enhance critical thinking in the nursing population.

The Institute of Medicine report on the future of nursing21 emphasized the importance of nursing residency programs to provide hands-on experience for new graduates transitioning into practice. According to the report, these programs have been shown to help new nurses develop critical competencies in clinical decision making (eg, critical thinking) and autonomy in providing patient care. Implementing successful methods to expedite the development of critical thinking in new nurses has the potential to improve patient safety, nurse job satisfaction, and recruitment and retention of competent nurse professionals.22

Although critical thinking skills are developed through clinical practice, there are many experienced nurses who possess less than optimal critical thinking skills.5 As part of an initiative to elevate the critical thinking of nurses on the frontline, Berkow et al23 reported the development of the Critical Thinking Diagnostic, a tool designed to assess critical thinking of experienced nurses. The tool includes 25 competencies, identified by nursing leaders as core skills at the heart of critical thinking. These competencies were grouped into 5 components of critical thinking: problem recognition, clinical decision making, prioritization, clinical implementation, and reflection. The potential application of this tool may enable nurse leaders to identify critical thinking strengths and individualize learning activities based on the specific needs of nurses on the frontline.

The critical thinking concepts, identified in the Delphi study of nurse experts, were used to teach critical thinking in a continuing education course.24 The objective of the course was to help nurses develop the cognitive skills and habits of the mind considered important for practice. The course focused on the who, what, where, when, why, and how of critical thinking, using the case study approach. The authors concluded that critical thinking courses should include specific strategies for application of knowledge and opportunities to use cognitive strategies with clinical simulations.

Journal clubs encourage evidence-based practice and critical thinking by introducing nurses to new developments and broader perspectives of health care.11 Lehna et al25 described the virtual journal club (VJC) as an alternative to the traditional journal club meetings. The VJC uses an online blog format to post research-based articles and critiques, for generation of discussion by nurses. Recommendations for practice change derived from the analysis are forwarded to the appropriate decision-making body for consideration. The VJC not only exposes the nursing staff to scientific evidence to support changing their practice but also may lead to institutional policy changes that are based on the best evidence. The VJC overcomes the limitations of the traditional journal clubs by being available to all nurses at all times.

The integration of simulation technology in nursing exposes nursing students and nurses to complex patient care scenarios in a safe environment. Kirkman26 reported a study to investigate nursing students’ ability to transfer knowledge and skill learned during high-fidelity simulations to the clinical setting, over time. The sample of 42 undergraduate students were rated on their ability to perform a respiratory assessment, using observation and a performance evaluation tool. The findings indicated there was a significant difference in transfer of learning demonstrated by participants over time. These results provide evidence that students were able to transfer knowledge and skills from high-fidelity simulations to the traditional clinical setting.

Jacobson et al27 reported using simulated clinical scenarios to increase nurses’ perceived confidence and skill in handling emergency situations. During a 7-month period, the scenarios were conducted a total of 97 times with staff nurses. Each scenario presented a patient’s evolving story to challenge nurses to assess and synthesize the clinical information. The scenarios included a critical point at which the nurses needed to recognize and respond to significant deterioration in the patient’s condition. Postproject survey data found that most of the nurses perceived an improvement in their confidence and skill in managing emergency situations. More than half of the nurses reported that their critical thinking skills improved because of participation in this project.

Individual nurses can enhance critical thinking by developing a questioning attitude and habits of inquiry, where there is an appreciation and openness to other ways of doing things. Nurses should routinely reflect on the care provided and the outcomes of their interventions. Using reflection encourages nurses to think critically about what they do in everyday practice and learn from their experiences.28 This strategy is beneficial for nurses to validate knowledge and examine nursing practice.5 Nurses must be comfortable with asking and being asked “why” and “why not.” Seeking new knowledge and updating or refining current knowledge encourage critical thinking by practicing based on the evidence. “We’ve always done it that way” is no longer an acceptable answer. A list of other useful strategies for enhancing critical thinking is included in Table 1.

Strategies to Enhance Critical Thinking


Case studies provide a means to attain experience in high-risk and complex situations in a safe environment. The purpose of a case study is to apply acquired knowledge to a specific patient situation, using actual or hypothetical scenarios. Waxman and Telles32 discussed using Benner’s model to develop simple to complex scenarios that match the learning level of the nurse. The case study should ideally provide all the relevant information for analysis, without directing the nurse’s thinking in a particular direction. Participants are encouraged to use thinking processes similar to that used in a real situation.

A well-developed case study defines objectives and expected outcomes. The questions should be geared toward the outcomes to be met.30 The focus of the questions should be on the underlying thought processes used to arrive at the answer, rather than the answer alone. This helps nurses identify the reasons behind why a decision is made. In some cases, the case study may build on the information shared, instead of presenting all the information at one time. At the very least, case studies should have face validity or represent what they were developed to represent.33

Case studies can be developed for specific purposes, such as analyzing data or improving the nurse’s skill in responding to specific clinical situations.30 This strategy can be useful in building nurses’ confidence in managing complex or emergency situations. The case can be tailored to specific patient populations or clinical events. Covering the course of care that a patient receives over time is effective in putting together the whole picture.31 For the purpose of improving patient outcomes, the case study should represent the overall patient experience. Case studies may be used to review specific actions that led to positive outcomes or the processes that led to negative outcomes. This can help determine if the care was the most appropriate for the situation.34

The use of case studies with simulation technology provides nurses with the opportunity to critically think through a critical situation in a controlled setting. The latest human patient simulators (HPSs) are programmed to respond to the nurse’s intervention, with outcomes determined as a result of the intervention. Howard et al35 compared the teaching strategies of HPSs and the traditional interactive case study (ICS) approach, using scenarios with the same subject matter. A sample of 49 senior nursing students were given pretest and posttest designed to measure the students’ knowledge of the content presented and their ability to apply that content to clinical problems. Participants in the HPS group scored significantly higher on the posttest than the ICS group did. Students reported that the HPS assisted them in understanding concepts, was a valuable learning experience, and helped to stimulate their critical thinking. There was no significant difference between the HPS and ICS groups’ responses to the statement that the educational intervention was realistic.

The Figure depicts an example of a heart failure case study with the objective of applying critical thinking to a common problem encountered in practice. Expert clinical nurses would be ideal to serve as facilitators of this learning experience. Their role would be to present the scenario, describe the physiological findings, ask open-ended questions that require thinking and analysis, and guide the discussion and problem-solving process. Discussion and questioning strategies that are helpful in eliciting reflective responses during the learning experience are included in Table 2. This case study could be tailored to meet the learning needs of the target audience.

Discussion and Questioning Strategies for the Case Study Approach
Case study example: cardiac scenario.


The workplace environment can enhance or hinder nurses’ motivation to develop their critical thinking abilities. Cornell and Riordan36 reported an observational study that assessed workflow barriers to critical thinking in the workplace. A total of 2061 tasks were recorded on an acute care unit during 35.7 hours of observation. The activities found to consume nearly 70% of the nurses’ time included verbal communication, walking, administering medications, treatments, and documentation. Nurse workflow was characterized by frequent task switching, interruptions, and unpredictability. The authors recommended reallocating duties, delegating appropriate task to nonnursing personnel, reducing waste, deploying technology that reduces repetitive task, and continuing education and training to help nurses cope with the complex demands of nursing.

Factors in the work environment conducive to the development of critical thinking include an atmosphere of team support, staffing patterns that allow continuity of care, and exposure to a variety of patient care situations. Creating an environment where contributions are valued, nurses feel respected, and there is comfort with asking probing questions is very important in enhancing the development of critical thinking skills.


Critical thinking is an essential skill that impacts the entire spectrum of nursing practice. Studies have shown that the higher the critical thinking ability, the better the nursing competence is. It is essential that critical thinking of new and experienced nurses be assessed and learning activities developed based on the specific needs of the nurses. The concept of critical thinking should be included in orientation, ongoing education, and preceptor preparation curriculums. These educational offerings should be designed to help nurses develop the cognitive skills and habits of the mind considered important for practice.

Bedside nurses can integrate a critical thinking approach by developing clinical expertise, making a commitment to lifelong learning, and practicing based on the evidence. Nurses should routinely reflect on the care provided and the outcomes of their interventions.

Further research is needed to identify areas of critical thinking deficiency and evaluate strategies aimed at enhancing critical thinking. These strategies will ultimately lead to improved clinical decision making and patient outcomes. Bedside nurses, preceptors, and nurse leaders are encouraged to work together collaboratively to create a culture where critical thinking is an integral part of nursing practice.


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    Acute care; Critical thinking; Decision making

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