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How Does Nursing Theory Fit into Nursing Education?: From the Perspective of Two Nurse Educators

Erin Dolen, MSN-Ed, RN, CNE
Catherine Quay, MSN, RN-BC, CNE

Last year, we conducted a study with Dr. Jane K. Dickinson as part of our doctoral program in Nursing Education at Teachers College Columbia University, that explored the use of nursing theory to guide nursing doctoral research. Our findings revealed that doctoral nursing students rarely use nursing theory to guide their work. Reflecting on these results, we realized we had more questions than answers, and we started to discuss what this means for us as educators.

Nurse educators are responsible for preparing students to be future nurses and leaders in healthcare. Yet, the increasing number of nurses leaving the profession due to burnout, compassion fatigue, and moral distress makes us wonder if we are preparing them for the current environment they are being immersed in. Are we giving nursing students the tools they need to be successful nurses in today’s environment? And can these tools be found in the profession’s theory, values, and knowledge? We believe so.

Our research has shown that nursing theory is not commonly being used to further enhance nursing science. This finding leads us to believe that nursing students are not being taught the importance of nursing theory and the significance of how understanding nursing theory helps guide them in their practice. Understanding the application of nursing theories, such as Orem’s (1971) Self Care Theory, Watson’s (1997) Theory of Human Caring, and King’s (1971) Conceptual System, can provide a foundation for holistic nursing practice and self care. We believe that seeing the connection between nursing theories and their own practice can help nursing students build resilience and find alignment with their personal value system.

Through our own doctoral education, making the connection between theory and our practice as nurses and educators has given us a more in-depth understanding of the nursing profession, which has provided us with a true sense of professional belonging and connection to our personal values. For example, in our doctoral nursing theory course, we were introduced to Chinn and Falk-Rafael’s (2018) Critical Caring Pedagogy (CCP). We found an immediate connection between what was discussed in CCP and our own practice. Suddenly, how we approached nursing care and nursing education made so much more sense. We finally had a rationale for why we do what we do and a language to communicate our values as nurse educators.

If finding understanding and our voice through connecting to nursing science and values can help us, it could potentially help other nursing students and nurses navigate the challenges they face in the current healthcare system. More than ever, the profession needs to fall back on our scientific foundation to solve the issues of nurse burnout, fear, and a potential loss of our authentic nursing voice at the bedside. For example, a thorough understanding of Carper’s (1978) patterns of knowing can help a nurse see these patterns threaded through their practice, which can give them meaning, purpose, and an understanding of what they do as nurses. More importantly, it can give them a language that allows them to advocate for themselves as nurses and the nursing profession. The ability to fall back on this meaning and understanding allows one to remember why they chose to be a nurse in the first place.

Our hope is that we can better prepare future nurses by addressing some of the questions raised by our research through nursing education. Nursing faculty have an opportunity to develop innovative ways to infuse and engrain patterns of knowing, nursing values, and nursing theory into the curriculum. Engaging students in nursing science at all levels of education can help them develop a deeper understanding of nursing knowledge, can further clarify the connection between theory and practice, and can lay a foundation for future nursing theory-guided research. Nurse educators can guide students in making the connection between what they are learning in the classroom and what they experience in the clinical setting. One strategy we recommend would be to use resources such as have the students identify a theory that best describes their own perspective of nursing care. Help students bring theory to life by asking them to reflect on a personal clinical experience that demonstrates how their chosen theory guided their actions. Learning strategies, like these, can facilitate the student’s ability to communicate to others what nurses do and why they do it. Developing this ability and the use of a common language will serve to strengthen nursing’s vision and promote nursing practice that is based on nursing science.

Acknowledging and being able to discuss the value in nurses’ professional knowledge and a clear connection between theory, education, and research enhances the unique nursing perspective and lays a foundation for future research and new knowledge development. Through future nursing education research, we can identify evidence-informed, active learning strategies that will enable nurse educators to successfully prepare nursing students for the professional challenges they may face and to keep them engaged and fuel their excitement about nursing science throughout their educational journeys.


Carper, B. (1978). Fundamental patterns of knowing in nursing. Advances in Nursing Science, 1(1), 13-24.

Chinn, P.L. & Kramer, M.K. (2018) Knowledge development in nursing: Theory and process (10th ed.). Elsevier.

King, I.M. (1971). Toward a theory for nursing: General concepts of human behavior. Wiley.

Orem, D.E. (1971). Nursing: Concepts of practice. McGraw Hill.

Watson, J. (1997). The Theory of Human Caring: Retrospective and prospective. Nursing Science Quarterly, 10(1), 49-52.

About Erin Dolen and Catherine Quay

Erin Dolen

Erin is an Assistant Professor of Practice at Russell Sage College in Troy, NY. She is a doctoral candidate in the EdD Nursing Education Program at Teachers College, Columbia University. She has her MSN with a focus in Nursing Education from Excelsior College. Erin has her national certification as a Certified Nurse Educator. Her nursing background is in emergency medicine. She lives in Delmar, NY with her husband and two children. Catherine Quay, MSN, RN-BC, CNE is an Assistant Clinical Professor and gerontology course chair in the undergraduate nursing program at Drexel University.

Cathy Quay

Cathy received a master’s degree as a family nurse practitioner from Pace University, is a board certified gerontological nurse, and a certified nurse educator. She is currently an EdD candidate in nursing education at Teachers College Columbia University. Her research interests focus on fostering empathy and decreasing bias in future healthcare providers to better prepare them to address health disparities and to care for an increasingly diverse population.

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