Large, empty lecture hall
HealthNovember 06, 2020

Meeting the students where they are: Supporting critical thinking in the new classroom environment

By: Mechele Hailey, DNP, RNC-OB
There are many variables affecting the way we educate pre-licensure nursing students. Each student is unique, and so are the environments in which we teach.

From traditional face-to-face to online video conferencing platforms and to any number of clinical environments, it is up to us as educators to consider students and school situations. We need to meet the students where they are, and as they are, to promote critical thinking.

Ever-changing environments

Even before Covid-19, nurse educators were looking for ways to enhance critical thinking in today’s classroom environments. These environments range from a traditional classroom environment, in which students and faculty are all present, to virtual classrooms and clinical environments using video conferencing platforms such as Zoom, Big Blue Button, Google Meet, etc. In the traditional classroom, faculty can control the learning environment including distractions, and use physical activities to engage students in what they are learning. In the virtual classroom environment, there are unique challenges such as environmental distractions and a lack of physical presence to interact with each other and faculty.


The days are long gone when we could get away with straight lecturing for two to three hours during class and expect the students to somehow “absorb” what we were teaching. Today’s students are so used to instant gratification and increasing numbers are kinesthetic learners. Students have always learned from hearing stories, or actually taking care of certain patients in the clinical settings. Regardless of the environment, we need to help the students learn and master the material to support critical thinking.

There still remains a big challenge though for students to connect what they are learning in the classroom to the clinical environments. They tend to see the content learned in the classroom environment as different from what they do in the clinical settings. It is up to us to facilitate that connection to help them apply what they have learned to actual patient situations.


We should be able to help students learn to connect what they are learning in the content, to patient situations. First, they do need some lecture on the material from the faculty member as a content expert. This can be delivered via a pre-recorded lecture that the student listens to, prior to attending class.

Case studies are a good way to connect the material to an actual patient situation. These case studies should be unfolding, and include aspects like medications, lab work, histories, etc. The faculty member then guides the students, step by step, through the patient scenario, talking students through the thought processes.

In the traditional classroom, faculty can physically separate them into groups to do group activities. Many of the virtual platforms allow the facilitator to break the participants into virtual breakout rooms for group activities. The facilitator can then go from room to room to facilitate discussion and activity. It is easy to then go back to the main classroom for more work or conclusions. Groups should be of the size that is big enough to facilitate peer to peer learning, but small enough that each student contributes to the activity.

The trick is repetition. The more situations they can apply content to, the more they will learn the critical thinking skills needed to apply what they learn. The guided process teaches them the thought processes that a nurse would have, as they approach a certain patient situation. This is just like in math, where practice problems help solidify concepts being learned. In nursing, case studies with different patient situations help the students solidify critical thinking skills.


In conclusion, nursing education needs to adapt and look for ways to promote critical thinking skills in all learning environments. Application and evaluation of knowledge facilitates the development of those skills. What do you think?

Mechele Hailey, DNP, RNC-OB
Expert Insights Contributor for Wolters Kluwer, Nursing Education
Lippincott® Nursing Education
Preparing today’s students to become tomorrow’s nurses
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