A Concept-Based Curriculum: Why Make the Change?

Woman studying

For the last eight years or so, the use of a concept-based curriculum (CBC) has caught the attention of nurse educators who are searching for a way to not only prepare students to be successful on the NCLEX examination, but also to more effectively care for patients at the time of graduation. Yet, the thought of a complete curriculum revision is rarely an appealing thought for busy faculty. What are the reasons for making the change to a CBC? Will the change in curricular approach REALLY make a difference?

The overwhelming reason for changing to a CBC lies in the focus on conceptual learning, as opposed to memorization.

CONCEPT is the way in which our brains organize knowledge, giving that knowledge a name, so that we can think and talk about it with others (Rodgers, 2016).

For example, when one nurse wants to discuss the impact of family dynamics (a concept) on a patient’s progress toward wellness, other healthcare providers generally know the focus of his discussion. They know that it will involve a group of people who are related in some way and who experience fluid, flexible, and changeable interactions in a variety of context-specific ways (Giddens, 2016, Rodgers, 2016). Even though there are many dissimilar characteristics in specific family dynamics, the nurse and his colleagues at least have a similar frame of reference in order to begin a conversation about this concept.

Rodgers (2016) suggests that when we understand a concept, we can categorize its various attributes and apply it in a clinical situation. This supports our ability to think abstractly. Most importantly, we can apply what we know about the concept from one situation to another, comparing the similarities and differences between the two. When we find a situation in which a concept is different from what we have experienced in the past, we become open to new knowledge about the concept (Rodgers, 2016).

When concepts form the framework for a nursing curriculum, faculty are encouraged to focus on the concepts, using the most prominent exemplars as examples. Emphasizing ONLY the prominent exemplars reduces the content saturation of the current nursing curriculum, driven by the explosion of new information. Even more importantly, this type of curriculum stimulates the student to learn conceptually.

Conceptual learning is a process by which learners develop high-level thinking skills and the ability to apply facts in the context of concepts that may be a part of various clinical scenarios (Giddens, 2016).

The faculty’s responsibility is to support the student’s conceptual learning through teaching-learning activities, such as case studies, narratives, reflective writing, or problem-solving. These types of activities allows students to:

  • Be exposed to the concept
  • Work with the concept in a variety of situations
  • Test to see if certain nursing care associated with a concept is appropriate in specific clinical scenarios (Rogers, 2016)

In a more traditional curriculum where disease processes are the framework, the focus is almost always on remembering facts — multiple facts for each disease entity. This may make transference of facts from one situation to another as a novice nurse overwhelming.

Ultimately, nurses generally learn to practice conceptually, transferring knowledge of related concepts from one clinical situation to another. Many nurses, including this author, remember when they made the transition from trying to remember every fact related to a specific disease entity while in the practice environment to using presenting concepts to plan and deliver care. If we use a conceptual approach to prepare nursing students, we will facilitate this transition to conceptual practice much sooner in the students’ development as a nurse, making the transition from student to practicing nurse much more efficient and effective.


Giddens, J. (2017) Concepts for Nursing Practice. Second Edition. St. Louis: Elsevier

Giddens, J., Caputi, L., Rodgers, B. (2014) Mastering Concept-Based Teaching. St. Louis: Elsevier

Rodgers, B. (2016) What’s all the fuss about concepts? Teaching for the future of nursing. Concept Based Curriculum Symposium. Charlotte, North Carolina. June 3.

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