Critical Thinking in Health Care Education

Dental students observing dentist working on patient

Training critical thinking skills is required for academic and clinical success

For decades, health science educators have worked hard to train critical thinking in students and practicing clinicians. They do this because academic and clinical success is directly related to strength in critical thinking skills and mindset traits.

The challenge is to admit students who will:

(1) succeed in their training and licensure examinations, and

(2) transition well to jobs that immediately demand strength in problem analysis and decision making.

Many clinical specialty programs receive an extraordinary number of applicants for a limited number of training seats.  The effort to develop clinicians capable of strong critical thinking starts at the time of admission. Educating physical therapists, nurses, pharmacists, physicians, and all other clinical specialists requires years of course work as well as extensive clinical practice hours.

The power of critical thinking assessment data

Researchers have been studying the power of critical thinking scores at admission to predict clinical ratings, degree completion and licensure rates.

Studies in Audiology, Dentistry, Dental Hygiene, Family Medicine, Midwifery, Nursing, Occupational Therapy, Pharmacy, Physical Therapy, Psychology, and others, have demonstrated the added value of including a critical thinking assessment as a part of the admission protocol.  Additional investigations are underway for Dieticians, Physician Assistants, Respiratory Therapists,  and other specialties. See Admissions, Retention and Licensure for short descriptions of peer-reviewed, independent research studies using Insight Assessment’s test instruments: HSRT,  CCTST and CCTDI.

Evaluating effectiveness of critical thinking training techniques

Specific training techniques have been closely studied for their effectiveness in building critical thinking skills and a thinking mindset.

Significant gains in critical thinking have been related to problem-based learning strategies, the use of patient simulators, cased-based seminars, concept-mapping strategies, experiential learning programs, peer questioning techniques, and reflective writing exercises. Citations and summaries of these investigations can be found on this Training Techniques link.

Comparing admissions and exit scores over time

Following student cohorts over time and collecting a second or third measure of critical thinking skills and mindset at program completion has informed many educational researchers about:

  • which particular skills and mindset attributes are commonly seen in admissions cohorts;
  • which skills and mindset attributes are improved in relation to particular training techniques;
  • which skills require attention in curriculum building.

Scores provide a baseline comparison when new curriculum is introduced.

Improving thinking requires explicit instruction

One claim is no longer in question: assuring and improving students’ critical thinking skills cannot be a matter of implicit expectation.

This is the conclusion of Philip Abrami and colleagues who conducted a meta-study examining 117 published studies comprising 20,698 participants, documenting the importance of explicitly training critical thinking. The cases improved, while the controls either didn’t show improved skills or they improved  less. Abrami advises that educators must make learning objectives clear to students.  Pre-service and in-service training should also be provided pre-service and in-service training for educators to help them become increasingly effective as trainers of critical thinking.

If you would like to read more about these studies, click on the links above, and also on this collection of study summaries on Learning Outcomes Assessment.

Critical thinking as predictive indicator

International collaborations to create valid and reliable language translations of Insight Assessment test instruments now support a global research effort. Peer-reviewed studies from from Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Ireland, Japan, Malaysia, the Netherlands, People’s Republic of China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, UAE, UK, and the US, among other countries, have demonstrated the predictive power of critical thinking skills scores (as indicators of an accomplished health science student and practicing clinician).

In summary, Dr. John Eigenauer reminds us that measurable gains in critical thinking are obtainable by implementing proven methods and best practices, which always include explicit instruction in critical thinking.

Our thanks to all the educators and scientists who are providing evidence of the improvement of health science education, internationally, through the use of our critical thinking assessments and training programs.

Tools for health care education

Across the world, schools and programs in all the health professions now use the Health Science Reasoning Test (HSRT) or the CCTST  to incorporate scores on critical thinking and quantitative reasoning skills as a factor in their admissions decision-making. These instruments provide an in-depth profile of applicants’ thinking skills in analyzing and solving problems, indicating strengths and areas where growth is needed. Many also use the CCTDI to select students who will be inquisitive, organized, foresightful, truth-seeking, open-minded, and engage problems with a maturity of judgment.

We offer unique comparison percentiles for dentistry, medicine, nursing, OT, pharmacy, PT, RT, and the other health professional disciplines that allow admissions decisions to be benchmarked to your national comparison groups.   

Contact us today or call us at 650-697-5628 to learn how researchers and health science programs are using Insight Assessment powerful, nationally benchmarked assessment tools to gather objective, validated data to inform their admissions, program evaluation and accreditation programs. 

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