Conceptual Learning in Nursing Education:

Why use conceptual learning
in nursing education

Changes challenges
in Nursing Education:

Today, one of the biggest problems that faces nursing instructors is how to balance the need for meaningful, quality learning with the seemingly endless amount of health-related content.

With the ever-changing health care system, it is virtually impossible for nursing instructors to "cover" everything a new nurse needs to know. Likewise, it is also unrealistic for nursing students to fully understand every disease, illness, and patient variation that they might encounter on the job. Even if both parties could cover all of that material, rote memorization of facts will not sufficiently equip a new nurse to practice in today's health care system.

Nursing students must have the ability to apply knowledge to the clinical environment. This is why conceptual learning is key. At its core, conceptual learning enables students to use what is familiar or what they have already experienced to better understand new subject matter. When they have a firm understanding of nursing concepts, how they are related to one another, and a few exemplars of each concept, students begin to develop their own clinical framework that will help them draw conclusions about new patient situations throughout their career.

A Conceptual Learning Case Study

Eva is a second year nursing student currently enrolled in a nursing program that has implemented a concept-based curriculum. For today's lesson, Eva's instructor introduces the class to the concept of Development. The instructor starts off by defining Development (the sequence of physical, psychosocial, and cognitive developmental changes that take place over the human lifespan*) and explains how they will encounter the concept of Development in all patient situations.

Next the students learn key background information about the concept of Development — how it follows a predictable sequence; the many theories that attempt to explain it such as Piaget's and Kohlberg's; the idea that anyone can have a developmental delay; and the number of ways to identify developmental delays. Then the instructor demonstrates how other concepts are interrelated with the concept of Development.

In this instance, Eva sees how the concepts of Family Dynamics and Functional Ability can be greatly affected by one's physical and emotional development. Finally, the instructor provides Eva and her classmates with clinical exemplars of the concept of development (some conditions that result from or cause problems in development such as Autism or cerebral palsy).

Fast forward to four years later. Eva is now a practicing nurse at a major metropolitan children's hospital. One day at work, Eva is charged with the care of a pediatric patient whom she suspects might have Asperger's syndrome. Though, Eva may not have studied much about Asperger's syndrome specifically in nursing school, she remembers that Asperger's syndrome is an example of an emotional developmental delay. And because Eva does have a thorough understanding of the concept of Development and other concepts that are interrelated, she is well equipped to make sound clinical judgments about her patient.

Specifically, Eva remembers that Family Dynamics is a concept that is greatly interrelated with Development. Thus, she knows she will need to take a thorough assessment of her patient's family structure, communication patterns, and roles. This will help guide Eva in teaching her patient and his family teaching about the patient's condition and home care. Eva also remembers that one's Functional Ability can be significantly impacted by development delays. So, after assessing her patient's Functional Ability, Eva makes sure to include interventions that will help her patient and his family with activities while still maximizing her patient's independence.

As Eva's situation demonstrates, when students have a firm understanding of the important nursing care concepts, they will be prepared to think critically and deliver safe and effective care in almost any given clinical situation.

*Giddens: Concepts for Nursing Practice

The Benefits of a Concept-Based
Curriculum in Nursing Education

While concepts and aspects of conceptual learning can be infused into any type of education model (even traditional content-laden ones), lessons in a concept-based curriculum actually center on concepts themselves.

When teaching in a concept-based curriculum, faculty become less concerned with "covering everything" and can provide more in-depth guidance to students. Additionally, students are able to focus on key, prevalent exemplars, and their interconnected nature. This, in turn, enables them to recognize features of a condition and begin to apply what they have learned to a variety of situations.

The Benefits of a Concept-Based Curriculum
  • encourages students to think at more elevated levels
  • facilitates collaborative and active learning
  • helps streamline content
  • focuses on problems across disease categories and populations
  • supports systematic observations about events or conditions that influence a problem
  • underscores the relationships among events or conditions that impact a situation
  • emphasizes nursing actions and interdisciplinary efforts
  • meets the needs of diverse learners
  • prepares learners for professional success
Think your program might transition to a
concept-based curriculum?
Read on to find out the steps you need to take.


Or contact us now for help.