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Students/New Nurses

How to Develop Clinical Judgment in Nursing Students

By November 3, 2016March 17th, 2022No Comments

Though clinical reasoning is essential to develop in order to THINK more like a nurse, it is not the end product of nurse thinking.

A correct clinical judgment is the end result of how a nurse thinks and both critical thinking and clinical reasoning must be utilized by the nurse (see prior blog Why Clinical Reasoning is Foundational to Nursing Practice).

That is why clinical reasoning must be emphasized in nursing education.

Today, I take a closer look at Christine Tanner’s (2006) model that breaks down how a nurse makes a clinical judgment.

When this is understood, nurse educators can help students strengthen and develop this essential nurse thinking skill.

 Clinical Judgment Step-by-Step

Tanner (2006) breaks down the process of how a nurse makes a clinical judgment in four steps.

Key aspects of clinical reasoning are also present in this model including the importance of identifying RELEVANT clinical data and then INTERPRETING the significance of what this data represents.

These four steps are:

  1. Noticing: Though this can be part of nursing assessment, it is really much more. It emphasizes the nurse’s expectations of the current clinical situation. If the patient is presenting in a way that is expected or unexpected, a decision can be made based on his or her knowledge that is used and applied from the textbook as well as from prior clinical experience. Can the nurse identify what the most relevant clinical data is and why?
  2. Interpreting: Once the essence of the current clinical situation is grasped and relevant clinical data identified, this data must now be interpreted. What does this data mean and what is its significance? Unless a nurse has a deep understanding of the applied sciences, especially pathophysiology, the ability to correctly interpret will be impacted.
  3. Responding: Based on the correct interpretation, does the nurse need to ACT or rescue, or is further monitoring warranted?
  4. Reflecting: Two aspects of reflection are needed by the nurse to practically strengthen and develop clinical judgment. Reflection IN action and reflection ON action.

It is important to note that based on Tanner’s model, the nurse must be able to USE knowledge in order to NOTICE as well as INTERPRET the clinical data collected.

TMI in nursing education is a barrier to develop the needed DEEP understanding of what is MOST important and not only impacts student learning but also their ability to make a correct clinical judgment!

In a prior blog I discussed and defined critical thinking and clinical reasoning and the importance of decreasing content overload to strengthen the ability of student’s to readily APPLY and USE this knowledge at the bedside.

Two Types of Reflection Needed

1. Reflection-IN-action

This is the ability of the nurse to “read” the patient and how they are responding to CURRENT nursing interventions and adjust what is done based on the patient’s response.

Every student in the course of clinical will make a clinical judgment based on data collected. Deepen their learning by having them intentionally reflect on their decision making by having them ask the following questions?

  • What can you learn from this?
  • What (if anything) would you do differently?
  • How can you use this knowledge in future patients you will care for?

Harness the power of reflection IN action in post conference by having each student share their reflections by using these three questions to guide reflection IN action.

2. Reflection-ON-action

Reflection ON action is required when a more thorough level of reflection is needed by the nurse because an error or incorrect judgment was made in the course of clinical.

Students as well as all nurses are human and will make mistakes. It is only a matter of when! Use this as an opportunity to learn from the error in judgment and determining what can be learned from what was just experienced and how that experience will contribute to ongoing clinical knowledge development that can be used in the future.

To guide student development of reflection ON action have them do the following steps of reflection by determining the following:

  • Description. Describe the patient situation
  • Feelings. How did you feel? What were you thinking and feeling?
  • Evaluation. How did you or others react? What problems did you experience? What challenged you?
  • Analysis. Explore details by determining what was the real problem? Why were they encountered? What did you base judgments on? Were these assumptions accurate?
  • Conclusion. Make a decision to determine what really happened. What was done well? What could have been differently? Could you have responded differently?
  • Action plan. Where do you go from here? Make a plan to do what is needed to maximize learning. Is additional knowledge or training is needed?

Reflection-ON-action promotes student knowledge and clinical judgment by thoroughly dissecting and reflecting upon a clinical situation that may have been significant such as a patient change in status or error in practice.

Reflection Develops Nurse Thinking

A recent review of the literature on clinical judgment and reasoning summarized their findings by stating, “Clinical judgment is a process that develops over a time in the nurse who consistently reflects in action and on action and responds accordingly” (Cappelletti, Engel, & Prentice, 2014, p. 458).

FREE Handout to Guide Student Reflection

I have created a simple 1 page PDF that will guide student reflection-IN-action that can be an effective supplement to each clinical experience.


Call to Action

Make it a priority to strengthen the ability of your students to develop the thinking that is required to make a correct clinical judgment.

Take the following steps in your program to put this blog to ACTION to bring needed change:

  1. Encourage and emphasize student reflection in post-conference so that every student can learn from one another and deepen their ability to make correct clinical judgments through the experience of others.
  2. Use my FREE PDF handout as a tool to guide student reflection IN action with each clinical experience!
  3. Did you find this post helpful? Then use your social media buttons below to share this blog with others who would appreciate it!

Remember that though clinical reasoning is essential to guide students to make a correct clinical judgment, reflection IN action and reflection ON action can be another effective strategy to deepen and develop the ability of every student to THINK more like a nurse and prepare them well for real-world professional practice!

Comment Question:
What barriers to strengthen nurse thinking are present in your program and what have you found effective to develop the ability of your students to make correct clinical judgments?
Comment below and let the conversation begin!

Want More?

e-book-cover2015Today’s blog was derived in part from chapter… from my new student text THINK Like a Nurse: Practical Preparation for Professional Practice.

See for yourself why programs around the country have adopted this text in their programs! If you are a nurse educator, Contact me if you would like a faculty eBook preview copy. Thanks!

New Tube!

Take 5″ and quickly help your students know which 4 labs must always be noted in a BMP and why!

Do you know which 4 labs in a BMP are ALWAYS relevant and WHY?


  • Cappelletti, A., Engel, J.K., & Prentice, D. (2014). Systematic review of clinical judgment and reasoning in nursing. Journal of Nursing Education.53, 453-458
  • Tanner, C. A. (2006). Thinking like a nurse: A research-based model of clinical judgment in nursing. Journal of Nursing Education, 45(6), 204–211.