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What Role Does Critical Thinking Play

The nursing profession tends to attract those who have natural nurturing abilities, a desire to help others and a knack for science or anatomy. But there is another important skill that successful nurses share and it’s often over-looked: the ability to think critically.

Identifying a problem, determining the best solution and choosing the most effective method are all parts of the critical thinking process. After executing the plan, critical thinkers reflect on the situation to figure out if it was effective and if it could have been done better. As you can see, critical thinking is a transferable skill that can be leveraged in several facets of your life.

But why is it so important for nurses to use? We spoke with several experts to learn why critical thinking skills in nursing are so crucial to the field, the patients and the success of a nurse. Keep reading to learn why and to see how you can improve this skill.

Why are critical thinking skills in nursing important?

You learn all sorts of practical skills in nursing school, like flawlessly dressing a wound, taking vitals like a pro or giving an IV without flinching. But without the ability to think clearly and make rational decisions, those skills alone won’t get you very far—you need to think critically as well.

“Nurses are faced with decision-making situations in patient care, and each decision they make impacts patient outcomes. Nursing critical thinking skills drive the decision-making process and impact the quality of care provided,” says Georgia Vest, DNP, RN and senior dean of nursing at Rasmussen College School of Nursing.

Critical thinking is embedded in a nurse’s everyday routine. They flex this mental muscle each day they enter the floor. When you’re faced with decisions that could ultimately mean life or death, the ability to analyze a situation and come to a solution separates the good nurses from the great ones.

How are critical-thinking skills acquired in nursing school?

Nursing school offers a multitude of material to master and high expectations for your performance. But in order to learn in a way that will actually equip you to become an excellent nurse, you have to go beyond just memorizing terms. You need to apply an analytical mindset to understanding course material.

One way for students to begin implementing critical thinking is by applying the nursing process to their line of thought, according to Vest. The process includes five steps: assessment, diagnosis, outcomes/planning, implementation and evaluation.

“One of the fundamental principles for developing critical thinking is the nursing process,” Vest says. “It needs to be a lived experience in the learning environment.”

Nursing students often find that there are multiple correct solutions to a problem. The key to nursing is to select the “the most correct” solution—one that will be the most efficient and best fit for that particular situation. You will often find yourself in situations where there are few “correct” forms of care, but one that is most appropriate. Using the nursing process, students can narrow down their options to select the best one.

When answering questions in class or on exams, challenge yourself to go beyond simply selecting an answer. Start to think about why that answer is correct and what the possible consequences might be. Simply memorizing the material won’t translate well into a real-life nursing setting.

How can you develop your critical thinking skills?

As you know, learning doesn’t stop with graduation from nursing school. Good nurses continue to soak up knowledge and continually improve throughout their careers. Likewise, they can continue to build their critical thinking skills in the workplace with each shift.

“To improve your critical thinking, pick the brains of the experienced nurses around you to help you get the mindset,” suggests Eileen Sollars, RN ADN, AAS. Understanding how a seasoned nurse came to a conclusion will provide you with insights you may not have considered and help you develop your own approach.

The chain of command can also help nurses develop critical thinking skills in the workplace.

“Another aid in the development of critical thinking I cannot stress enough is the utilization of the chain of command,” Vest says. “In the chain of command, the nurse always reports up to the nurse manager and down to the patient care aide. Peers and fellow healthcare professionals are not in the chain of command. Clear understanding and proper utilization of the chain of command is essential in the workplace.”

How are critical thinking skills applied in nursing?

“Nurses use critical thinking in every single shift,” Sollars says. “Critical thinking in nursing is a paramount skill necessary in the care of your patients. Nowadays there is more emphasis on machines and technical aspects of nursing, but critical thinking plays an important role. You need it to understand and anticipate changes in your patient's condition.”

As a nurse, you will inevitably encounter a situation in which there are multiple solutions or treatments and you’ll be tasked with determining the solution that will provide the best possible outcome for your patient. You must be able to quickly and confidently assess situations and make the best care decision in each unique scenario. It is in situations like these that your critical thinking skills will direct your decision making.

Beyond thinking

You’re now well aware of the importance of critical thinking skills in nursing. Even if you wouldn’t consider yourself a high-caliber critical thinker today, you can work toward strengthening that skill. The more you practice it, the better you will become and the more naturally it will come to you.

Critical thinking isn’t the only component that makes an effective nurse. Learn about how else you can position yourself to climb the ranks in your nursing career in our article, "Nursing Career Advancement: 7 Ways to Stand Out in Your Scrubs."


*This article was originally published in July 2012. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2017.


Critical thinking, a concept not so easily explained with one simple definition,generally can be interpreted as “the process of applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action1.” Thinking critically is, for sure, one of the few things every college student has in common. It can be applied in every major and career field; marketing is no exception. Without critical thinking, the basics of marketing, promoting and selling products or services, including market research and advertising, could not be accomplished2.

Marketing is defined as the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for costumers, clients, and society at large3. In my Basic Marketing class, a student’s ability to properly use and understand the concepts of critical thinking in the marketing field are put to the test; usually with practical examples and real-world cases. Critical thinking is a crucial skill. If we cannot successfully learn to predict the wants and needs of consumers, we fail the basics of marketing and we fail the consumers. Critical thinking pushes students to learn how ways to strategically predict future marketing trends and ways to advertise and promote different products. One of the first things taught in the Basic Marketing class at USF, is how to create a marketing plan. Planning involves the process of anticipating future events and determining strategies to achieve organizational objectives in the future3. Conducting research is important for the creation of a market plan. To successfully interpret research data that is collected, whether it be customer satisfaction, different demographic data, or how to remarket a product, students must be able to use critical thinking to analyze the information and make a practical decision. There are four major things that must be considered when critically thinking through a marketing plan: product strategies (what products are to be marketed), place or distribution (where customers will purchase these products), promotion strategies (how products get advertised and promoted), and pricing (how to determine the cost of the product sold)3. Known as the Four P’s, these strategies require someone who can properly interpret and implement them.

In Basic Marketing, students are taught, using real-world examples, how to use critical thinking in today’s ever-growing business markets. Professors use familiar companies and products to explain how being able to think critically produces successful outcomes in the field. In example: packaging of a product, using marketing techniques that create an overall appeal, regardless of the target market's ethnicity, gender or other characteristics, to certain population groups can prove to be beneficial for the company and may result in the product being accessible to a broad range of customers4. Being able to analyze these types of data and make a decision on a type of packaging can be linked to critical thinking. Without critical thinking, making a decision on package style or advertisement strategy could lead to a product’s failure—which ultimately has a negative impact on the company. Another, more specific, example would be, a car advertisement that appeals mainly to female consumers would need to avoid stereotypical images to enable the vehicle to appeal to a broader base of consumers4. Marketing professionals must use their critical thinking skills to examine branding concepts from a perspective that eliminates gender in advertising the car's features4.

Critical thinking forces us to take the steps to strategize and conduct research before they market a product. As students, we are taught that products and their relative advertisements must reach out to a specific demographic, or target market, whether it be college students from a lower-lever income class, or a corporate-working mother with a family of four. Proper research, analysis, and development must be obtained in order to successfully sell a product. Thinking through the proper steps will produce more successful marketing campaigns in the long run. The typical process for a marketing campaign must think and answer these question: is there a growing need for a new or existing product? Who buys/would buy the product? How much will this product cost, including the expense of packaging and advertising? How necessary is this product? These are just a few of the questions we as marketing students must learn to answer—and the only way to answer is by thinking critically.

Critical thinking is found in every college classroom and is widely used in daily life. It is extremely important for students to explore and develop their own styles and interpretations of critical thinking. Critical thinking opens the mind to different solutions and means of achieving an end. In marketing, critical thinking is of absolute importance. Without proper skills to think critically, students will lack the necessary requirements to successful market products and services in the fast-paced business industry.


1. "Defining Critical Thinking." Defining Critical Thinking. Foundation for Critical Thinking, 2013. Web. 23 Sept. 2015.

2. "Marketing." BusinessDictionary.com. WebFinance, Inc., 2015. Web. 23 Sept. 2015.

3. Lamb, Charles W., Joseph F. Hair, and Carl McDaniel. MKTG: Principles of Marketing. 9th ed. N.p.: Cengage Learning, 2015. Print.

4. Mayhew, Ruthanne. "Examples of Using Critical Thinking to Make Decisions in the Workplace." Small Business. Hearst Newspapers, LLC, 2015. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

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