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Critical thinking skills for back to school

Davis, Charlotte BSN, RN, CCRN

doi: 10.1097/01.NME.0000452693.42633.86
Department: New Education Extra

Charlotte Davis is a CCU/CVICU Clinical Nurse at Heritage Medical Center in Shelbyville, Tenn., and a Clinical Nurse/Charge Nurse/CCRN Review Program Coordinator at Alvin C. York VA Medical Center in Murfreesboro, Tenn. She is also a Nursing made Incredibly Easy! Editorial Advisory Board Member.

The author has disclosed that she has no financial relationships related to this article.

Thinking about returning to school or have you recently returned? If so, then you need to hone your critical thinking skills. These are skills you use every day in your practice—the purposeful, disciplined, intellectual process of applying skillful reasoning as a guide to our thoughts, assessments, or interventions.

In nursing, critical thinking is a logical and multifaceted process that guides our clinical decision making. It's a systematic and logical approach that encourages us to question our current nursing interventions through logical reasoning and reflection. Critical thinking requires us to ask: “Is this the best way to perform this intervention? Or is this the most effective intervention for my patient or my work area?”

So how can you put these skills to work when going back to school? Let's take a closer look.

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The crucial seven

There are seven critical thinking skills that all nurses utilize in their professional roles.

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Our job roles call for us to analyze objective and subjective data. As clinical nurses, we utilize the critical thinking skill of objectively analyzing the efficacy of new evidence-based practice (EBP) interventions as we incorporate them into our daily practice.

When returning to school, use your analytical skills to compare each school's curriculum and costs to ensure they meet your professional goals.

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Applying standards

All members of the healthcare team should utilize their intellectual integrity and apply professional and organizational standards of care into their daily practice. As nurses, we apply professional standards to ensure that we remain proficient and competent in our job roles. Common places to search for professional standards are your state board of nursing, the American Nurses Association, or the American Nurses Credentialing Center. Professional standards are the basic guidelines and principles around which we base our interventions and care plans. They help us ensure clinically competent, skillful, and safe care.

Utilize your critical thinking skill of applying standards when evaluating undergraduate and graduate programs to ensure they're accredited by a widely accepted governing body such as the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.

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Discriminating data

We must discriminate data and decide if an intervention has been effective or if it's safe and appropriate for our patient population or clinical work area. We're inundated with extensive data from pharmaceutical companies, research trials, governing bodies, and scholarly journals. We must distinguish the potential risks and benefits associated with any procedure, intervention, or treatment that might resolve a system failure, improve a patient outcome, or improve the work environment. As clinical nurses, we routinely discriminate data to identify any potential risks associated with a new intervention before we implement it into our daily practice.

When returning to school, you'll discriminate data as you evaluate each nursing program's curriculum, costs, reputation, and retention rates to determine what's the best fit to help meet your long-term professional goals.

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Seeking information

Inquiry is an eagerness to know by seeking knowledge and understanding through observation, review, analysis, and thoughtful questioning to explore possibilities and effective alternatives. Inquisitiveness is a thirst for knowledge and understanding through observation and targeted questioning with a goal of identifying the possibility of more effective or efficient alternatives. You can foster your sense of inquiry by exploring new EBP guidelines and clinical research outcomes within your specialty area.

Nurses have always sought more efficient ways to provide safe patient care, resolve delays in care delivery, and improve clinical outcomes and work areas. Seeking information exposes us to innovative interventions, procedures, or practices that can enhance our professional nursing role. Begin your journey of attaining an advanced degree by first seeking information on what job role you'd like to have and determining the educational requirements that are needed. Nursing is a highly specialized field with limitless possibilities that range from positions such as certified registered nurse anesthetist to advanced practice nurse practitioner to executive leadership positions.

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Logical reasoning

Logical reasoning allows us to interpret conclusions that are supported by evidence. We can assess the efficacy of nursing interventions and delivery systems, along with identifying patterns and predicting likely outcomes. Systematic processing of information is a characteristic of logical reasoning to identify trends and outcomes associated with specific interventions, diagnoses, symptoms, or behaviors.

You can utilize your logical reasoning skills to resolve barriers that may impair your ability to return to school, such as childcare arrangements or applying for scholarships. If you struggle with successfully navigating or completing online in-services, you might utilize your logical reasoning skills to determine that your education action plan may be most effective if delivered in a classroom versus an online setting.

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Envisioning a plan

We must be forward thinkers and envision a plan for our patients, clinical work areas, professional projects, and careers to meet the expectations of tomorrow. Formulating a plan requires us to utilize the nursing process steps of assessment, diagnosis or problem identification, planning, implementation, and evaluation. This is a step-by-step process with a clear goal or objective.

When contemplating returning to school, envision a plan on how to realistically attain that goal. This plan should include how to maintain your work, family, and school obligations. After you begin to formulate your plan, you can resolve barriers to meeting your goal.

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Transforming knowledge

It's vital to the nursing profession that we transform our knowledge to meet the growing complexities of our patients' healthcare needs. There's an evolving need for nurses to utilize the knowledge we acquire and function as transformational leaders who create positive change and can translate the vision, goals, and purpose of our organization and profession to peers and staff on the unit and organizational level.

As our profession continues to grow in both clinical practice and national recognition, we must be open to exploring innovative, safe alternatives to all aspects of our nursing practice. When you seek additional education, you expand your current knowledge base and challenge your old thought processes. We must continue to utilize our newly acquired knowledge and insight to formulate creative solutions to improve our current practices and resolve barriers that impact the nursing profession and our healthcare team, facility, and patient population.

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Let's get critical

As nurses, we utilize our critical thinking skills as we collect and analyze data while providing direct care to patients, as well as evaluate qualitative or quantitative research studies to decide if interventions may be applicable to our patient population. We can use the same skills to attain a professional goal, such as specialty certification or an advanced nursing degree (see Using your critical thinking skills to choose a program).

Critical thinking inspires us to thoroughly evaluate all aspects of a problem and acquire an adequate knowledge base to help us see all of the possible solutions. Enhancing your critical thinking skills can help you develop a clear education action plan to achieve your professional goals. Let's get started!

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cheat sheet

Seven critical thinking skills



  • Analyzing
  • Applying standards
  • Discriminating data
  • Seeking information
  • Logical reasoning
  • Envisioning a plan
  • Transforming knowledge
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Using your critical thinking skills to choose a program

  • Analyze—Gather information on the schools you're considering, such as their retention and graduation rates. Ask questions such as how long have their instructors been educating nurses, what's the curriculum, and what's the duration of classes.
  • Apply standards—Is your targeted school accredited? Check with the school or accrediting body to determine the length of time for which the school is accredited. Common accrediting organizations include the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing, the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education, the Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs, and the American College of Nurse-Midwives.
  • Discriminate data—Multiple factors may need to be evaluated when contemplating returning for an undergraduate or graduate nursing degree, such as cost, convenience, and the quality of the curriculum.
  • Seek information—Consider attending an onsite tour of the school you're considering. Preschedule an appointment with the admissions department, financial aid, program coordinator, or curriculum consultant for your perspective nursing program.
  • Logical reasoning—Look at each program to see which one fits best with your lifestyle and learning needs. Although many nurses prefer to take online classes for convenience, live classes may better meet your learning style. Also, many organizations offer to pay for your tuition, but you must typically be committed to staying at the organization for a set number of years or you'll have to repay tuition and expenses.
  • Envision a plan—You're in charge of your career success. You must envision a plan on how you can attain your degree and apply your energy to make that dream happen. It can be challenging to balance your home, work, and educational obligations to plan for a better, more rewarding career in the future. You can do this!
  • Transform knowledge—By starting on your journey to attaining your targeted nursing degree, you'll evolve into a leader within your organization. As you progress though each class, you're one step closer to your dream job and changing the lives of many patients and peers along the way.
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Learn more about it

Alfaro-LeFevre R. Critical Thinking, Clinical Reasoning, and Clinical Judgment. St. Louis, MO: Elsevier; 2013.
    Bodin SJ. A critical look at critical thinking. Nurs Manage. 2012;43(8):42–46.
      Chan ZC. A systematic review of critical thinking in nursing education. Nurse Educ Today. 2013;33(3):236–240.
        Dreher MC, Clinton P, Sperhac A. Can the Institute of Medicine trump the dominant logic of nursing? Leading change in advanced practice education. J Prof Nurs. 2014;30(2):104–109.
          Keele R. Nursing Research and Evidence-based Practice: Ten Steps to Success. Sudbury, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning; 2011.
            Nies MA, McEwen M. Community/Public Health Nursing: Promoting the Health of Populations. 5th ed. St Louis, MO: Elsevier Saunders; 2011.
              Rubenfeld MG, Scheffer BK. Critical Thinking Tactics for Nurses: Achieving the IOM Competencies. 2nd ed. Boston, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers; 2010.
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