IN NURSING SCHOOL, I learned about two types of thinking: There is the regular kind, and then there is critical thinking. Although it sounds like it means thinking about important things, critical thinking really means using reflective, systematic thought processes while weighing alternatives and finding a creative solution. For example, if a patient requests something for pain, the nurse will assess the pain, consider options for resolution, and individualize the intervention. This will often lead to a creative solution. When I became a nursing instructor, encouraging critical thinking at any plausible juncture for my students became one of my priorities.
Critical thinking comes easily to some students, but it can be a challenge for others. This is where a student I'll call Tiffany comes in. Her story, from one of my first years as a senior-level clinical instructor in the ICU, taught me an important lesson about educating aspiring nurses on critical thinking skills.
It was a Friday, my only office day for the week. The phone rang, and the coordinator for the first-level students was in a panic. Their instructor had called in sick, and a group of brand-new nursing students was assembled on the gerontology unit awaiting direction. My office was in a building adjacent to the hospital, and I was asked to run over there, quickly give assignments, and get the students started. I was unfamiliar with this level of student, but the coordinator assured me that I could handle it. The students would just be changing bed linens and providing bed baths.
I grabbed my lab coat and headed over to the unit. I quickly took inventory of the patient census and assigned each student to a patient. They set off with their arms full of linens and ambition.
Feeling satisfied that I had intervened effectively, I stationed myself at the central desk where I could be found if anyone needed me. About 15 minutes later, Tiffany hurried toward the nursing station with a panicked look on her face.
“I need help with my patient,” she said. “It's an emergency!” I quickly walked her back toward her assigned patient's room. As we walked, I encouraged her to explain the emergency. Thoughts of a cardiac arrest, patient fall, seizure, or violent behavior emerged from my critical care mindset. However, Tiffany relayed none of those potential emergencies in her explanation. Instead she informed me, “My patient said he needs to use the urinal!”
I stopped and looked at her incredulously. “That is the emergency?”
When her eyes began to fill with tears, compassion overwhelmed me. Of course that would be an emergency to this brand-new student. She had been told to give a bath and make the bed. Something outside of that assignment had come up.
I told her that she could let the patient use the urinal if he needed it before his bath. Confident that she could now conduct the new task on her assignment list, I gave her a word of encouragement and went back to the nursing station. All was quiet for about 10 minutes until Tiffany returned in another state of panic. Her patient was now too weak to hold on to the urinal. This time, I was a bit calmer in response.
Thinking it through
After explaining to the student what it meant to be a critical thinker and the value and characteristics thereof, I asked her to try to reason out an answer to her problem. She suggested she could hold the urinal for him.
“Yes! Outstanding!” I exclaimed. “That is how you use critical thinking!” After encouraging her to just be professional about it and act confidently, off she went to apply her new solution.
A lesson learned
This experience helped me to see the need to use critical thinking when teaching critical thinking. After all, one of the hallmark characteristics of critical thinking is to avoid making assumptions. As an instructor, I now develop assignments that require students to be creative, encourage problem-solving skills with individualized case studies and simulations, and challenge students with Socratic questioning and open-ended examinations instead of using a strict multiple-choice format. By taking this approach, instructors can begin to build those critical thinking skills that are so essential to professional practice.