7 Characteristics of Critical Thinking

October 24th, 2011


By , BSN, RN

In the past week or so, I have received two different continuing education unit (CEU) offers focused on critical thinking in nursing. This got me thinking (critically), "what's going on here?" So, I surfed the Internet using critical thinking as my search term, and I was overwhelmed. I found images and graphs and a You Tube video and websites and studies; clearly critical thinking is the latest trend.

For nurses, this is not a new trend. Without even being aware of it, half the time, nurses critically think their way through every day. The thinking process that guides nursing practice must be organized, purposeful and disciplined because nursing decisions often profoundly affect their patients' lives.

Critical thinking is not limited to problem solving or decision making; professional nurses use critical thinking to make observations, draw conclusions, create information and ideas, evaluate, and improve their knowledge base. In fact, critical thinking is considered so important, the National League for Nursing (NLN) added it as a mandatory criterion for accreditation of schools of nursing 20 years ago. Maybe nurses are trend setters.

From the wealth of evidence out there on the web, critical thinking is a big topic. It's probably too big for just one blog post, so here are seven characteristics of critical thinking to get us started.

  1. Critical thinking is reasonable and rational. Critical thinkers do not jump to conclusions. As nurses, we are trained to collect data (vital signs, for example), weigh the facts (blood pressure high, patient complaining of headache) and think the matter through (check for orders for blood pressure medications or call physician and request treatment options).
  2. Critical thinking is reflective. We're back to thinking the matter through, weighing the facts and evidence (does the patient have a history of high blood pressure, did he get his medications today, or was he off the unit when he normally would have taken them?) Things to consider.
  3. Critical thinking inspires an attitude of inquiry. A nurse who thinks critically wants to know how the body works and why it responds the way it does to disease, treatment and medications.
  4. Critical thinking is autonomous thinking. Critical thinkers are not easily manipulated. The patient in the emergency room demands medication for pain. The nurse needs specifics: how much pain, where, for how long? How often and does the client have a history with pain medications? Is it drug seeking behavior? Every ER nurse worth their salt has investigated the answers to these questions.
  5. Critical thinking includes creative thinking. Nurses come up with original ideas for day-to-day problems. As mentioned in previous articles about medical mission work, the nursing team invented catheter collection containers out of water bottles and personal belonging bags out of used surgical gown sleeves. More mundane inventions happen daily in your local hospital. For example, where I work, scrub nurses use 3ml syringes as containers for their micro needle holders. Keeps the needle loaded and safely out of the way until the surgeon needs it.
  6. Critical thinking is fair thinking. It is not biased or one-sided. Frequently this is about setting rules. For example, everyone wants off sometime in the winter holiday season. It is the charge of nurses and the nurse managers to figure out a system for everyone to get some time without jeopardizing patient safety. At many institutions, this means turning in a preference for Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year's off and the staff settling individually for one of the three.
  7. Critical thinking focuses on deciding what to believe or do. Critical thinking is used to decide on a course of action; make reliable observations; draw sound conclusions, solve problems; and evaluate policies, claims, and actions. It is that decision to call the physician even though it's the middle of the night or the decision to put aside charting for a while and sit with a patient who is anxious.

Critical thinking isn't new to nursing but it never gets old. We do it often without thinking but it's not a bad idea to review occasionally what exactly makes up those skills. I think I'm going to complete at least one of those CEUs and keep my skills fresh.

One Response to “7 Characteristics of Critical Thinking”

  1. Mary Says:

    I am a brand-new grad, and I remember our professors trying to teach critical thinking, with great difficulty. I think critical thinking is something that comes overtime, and with experience. It is something that also happens so automatically that if asked, I wouldn’t be able to break it down into a step by step process. It’s so important to have, and I love working with experienced nurses to witness their critical thinking and patient advocacy in action!

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