Critical Thinking Skills and Study Tips for Nursing School

Critical thinking skills for nursing students

The nursing profession appeals to a range of individuals because it offers a variety of career paths, educational choices, and flexibility. It’s also one of the most respected and highest-paying occupations. Despite the pandemic, nursing student enrollment continues to surge, with current baccalaureate programs boasting over a quarter million students nationwide. 

Nursing education aims to train competent and professional nurses to provide safe nursing care in a rapidly changing healthcare environment. The complexity of healthcare in the 21st century requires that nursing students develop critical thinking skills throughout their nursing curriculum.  

Recommended course: Communication in Health Care, 2nd Edition

Critical thinking skills 

Critical thinking (CT) in nursing education is an essential tool that directs nursing judgment in optimal patient outcomes. Strong critical thinkers are inquisitive, open-minded, demonstrate flexibility in considering alternatives, and are prudent when suspending or altering judgments.

CT is present in many nursing assignments, including case studies and concept maps. CT is often the most challenging task in becoming a nurse and shapes study habits throughout nursing school.  

Study tips for nursing school  

Here are some additional tips for nursing students striving for success. 

  • Time management. Using a calendar (paper/online) is essential for keeping up with important assignments, exams, and clinical rotations. 
  • Get organized. Organization enhances time management in nursing school. Print notes or PowerPoint before class.  
  • Know individual learning styles. Learning styles include visual, auditory, verbal, and kinesthetic. Most academic success centers can aid in finding what style works for each student. 
  • Study daily. This can include an assigned reading, practice questions, or videos. Daily practice can decrease anxiety and lead to better school-life balance. Don’t fall behind, and don’t give up!  
  • Focus on objectives. Every assignment might not have points attached. Critical thinking and professionalism require students to identify objectives and take the initiative to learn.  
  • Ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Other students may be curious about the same topic. This also allows the instructor to decide if the information they provide needs clarification for the group. 
  • Practice questions. Many nursing schools partner with publishing companies that provide electronic practice quizzes. These are helpful not only for developing content but also for honing test-taking skills.
  • Outside resources. Outside resources are helpful, including videos and links. Many are posted within the course, usually to enhance the information provided in the text.
  • Study groups. Many students find study groups immensely helpful. However, ensure that purposeful studying is taking place rather than idle talk. 

Preparing for exams

The first exam in nursing school is often a wake-up for all students. Test-taking is a learned skill, just like studying, and many will often struggle in the first test. Here are some helpful tips for successful test-taking.

  • Answer each item in succession, from start to finish. Skipping around increases missed items which generally count against the student. 
  • Read each stem (question) very carefully. 
  • Read each answer carefully, and don’t skip around.
  • If paper exams are used, highlight or underline important words in the question and all answer choices.  
  • Don’t skim the question and then pick an answer. This is known as the red dot theory. Students run to the red dot because it feels comfortable. It’s supposed to. Test designers have set this up as a distraction to weed out surface learning. Applying basic test-taking skills can help students avoid this pitfall in nursing exams. 
  • If the exam is computer generated, use practice questions. Always read the answers, both right and wrong. Learning takes place in the review. 
  • Don’t argue about exam answers or grades.
  • Review time management and organization when a satisfactory grade is not obtained.
  • Meet with a success coach or instructor to assist in identifying test-taking errors. Instructors strive for student success! 

Staying healthy

Along with study skills, maintaining physical and mental health is a critical part of success in nursing school. Students report that the sedentary nature of school creates unwanted weight gain. Creating audio lectures from class notes while walking for 30 minutes daily can decrease stress and anxiety while combating weight gain.

Use nutritional knowledge to create well-balanced meal plans, and take inventory of when snacking occurs and the associated feeling, including stress or anxiety. Additionally, increasing water intake improves health and eating-associated behaviors.

Nursing school is stressful. Often, students abandon measures supporting their mental health during school, as they feel that their responsibilities are overwhelming. Coping with these feelings may be the difference between success and failure.

Remember, nursing school is a marathon, not a sprint. Set achievable goals. Talk with an advisor or mental health professional as needed. Don’t hesitate to ask for help. Students should also surround themselves with family, friends, and others who champion their success. Those who have solid support systems often have less stress and increased self-confidence. 

Recommended course: Fundamentals of Mentorship

Critical thinking and NCLEX®  

A successful nursing education allows the graduate to use critical thinking skills in a national exam. The National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) developed the Clinical Judgment Measurement Model to measure entry-level nurses’ decision-making ability. Nursing students must be able to process information at a higher level, requiring collecting, organizing, and prioritizing data. 

Case studies and items written at application or higher measure the candidates’ ability to deliver safe client care. The development of critical thinking skills found in nursing education is the culmination of study habits, examinations, and practicums that support the candidates’ ability to:  

  • Analyze and organize the client presentation 
  • Prioritize hypotheses 
  • Generate solutions 
  • Take actions 
  • Evaluate expected outcomes 

The NGN Project 

On April 1, 2023, the NCSBN launched the Next Generation NCLEX (NGN). The intent of this examination update is to better measure nursing candidates’ clinical judgment and decision-making abilities.  

Born out of data collected in the 2013-2014 NCSBN Strategic Practice Analysis, the NGN provides support for newly licensed nurses who are increasingly expected to make complex decisions while caring for patients. Learn more about the Next Generation NCLEX here. 

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