Why Is Nursing Theory Important in Nursing Education?

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Nursing students attending a class.

Nursing theory is at the heart of the nursing practice. In fact, there are different theories that now exist. Each has been developed from scientific evidence and valid data to create frameworks and provide various strategies and approaches for patient care. But these theories are about much more than just big ideas. Nursing theory helps ensure the profession carves out its own niche in the complex, evolving world of health care providers.

As Marlaine Smith and Marilyn Parker wrote in Nursing Theories and Nursing Practice, “Nursing theories … regardless of complexity or abstraction, reflect phenomena central to the discipline and should be used by nurses to frame their thinking, action, and being in the world. As guides, nursing theories are practical in nature and facilitate communication with those we serve, as well as with colleagues, students, and others practicing in health-related services.”

Nursing theory is also important because it can be viewed as guiding how we think about nursing. Nursing theory helps distinguish nursing as a separate discipline from medicine and related sciences, and assists nurses in understanding their patients and their needs. The theory provides different templates to help nurses provide care that respects patients and improves outcomes. Through understanding the intersection of nursing, patients, health, and the environment, these theories aim to simplify the complicated, ever-evolving relationship that nurses have with their profession.

Advanced nursing degree programs, such as a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), offer a robust curriculum that integrates theory and evidence-based practice to prepare the next generation of nursing professionals.

What Is Nursing Theory?

Nursing theory is a system of concepts and practices put in place to inform meaningful actions in the nursing field, such as how to treat patients, how to communicate with patient families, and how to organize nursing responsibilities. Though there are many theories, they don’t all serve the same exact purpose. Some apply to the greater whole of all nursing, while others function only under certain circumstances or conditions. For example, a nursing theory popularized by Florence Nightingale known as “environmental theory” emphasizes the importance of quality surroundings for patient recovery, such as cleanliness, fresh air, pure water, and light exposure.

Though nursing theory is often developed by nurses, it’s influenced by physicians, nursing theorists, and other health care professionals. Nurses commonly use multiple separate theories, as strictly keeping to one theory isn’t always beneficial.

The Importance of Nursing Theory for Nurse Education

Prior to the development of nursing theories, nursing was seen as a task-oriented occupation, and nurses were trained by doctors. Today, nursing theory serves as the foundation of nursing. It is shaping the field in important ways, according to the website Nurselabs, because it:

  • Helps nurses understand their purpose and role in the health care setting
  • Guides knowledge development
  • Directs education, research, and practice
  • Recognizes what should set the foundation of practice by explicitly describing nursing
  • Serves as a rationale or scientific reason for nursing interventions and gives nurses the knowledge base to act and respond appropriately in nursing care situations
  • Provides the foundations of nursing practice
  • Indicates in which direction nursing should develop in the future
  • Gives nurses a sense of identity
  • Helps patients, managers, and other health care professionals acknowledge and understand the unique contribution nurses make to health care service
  • Prepares nurses to reflect on nursing assumptions and examine the values in nursing, thus further defining nursing and increasing knowledge base
  • Allows the nursing profession to maintain and preserve its professional limits and boundaries

A Look at Grand Nursing Theories

A grand theory is just what the name implies. Compared to middle-range and practical theories, grand theories offer a sweeping overview of the nursing profession.

As the website CareerTrend notes, grand theories “are general concepts that pertain to the overall nature and goals of professional nursing. A grand theory, and there are many, is a synthesis of scholarly research, professional experience, and insights from theoretical pioneers (such as Florence Nightingale).”

One well-known grand nursing theory was formulated by Dorothea Orem in the 1950s, which centers around the individual’s ability to practice self-care. Orem’s theory is divided into self-care, self-care deficit, and nursing systems.

Another grand theory, the Roy Adaptation Model, was put forth by Callista Roy in 1976, and states that the purpose of nursing is essentially to increase life expectancy. In an online article for NurseLabs, author Angelo Gonzalez writes that in Roy’s theory, “nurses are facilitators of adaptation. They assess the patient’s behaviors for adaptation, promote positive adaptation by enhancing environment interactions and helping patients react positively to stimuli. Nurses eliminate ineffective coping mechanisms and eventually lead to better outcomes. Adaptation is the ‘process and outcome whereby thinking and feeling persons as individuals or in groups use conscious awareness and choice to create human and environmental integration.’”

Virginia Henderson, often called the “first lady of nursing,” developed a grand theory of nursing in the early 20th century. It defined the role of nurses in this way, according to the website Nursing Theory: “The unique function of the nurse is to assist the individual, sick or well, in the performance of those activities contributing to health or its recovery (or to peaceful death) that he would perform unaided if he had the necessary strength, will, or knowledge.”

NurseLabs details other significant theorists and their concepts, including:

  • Ida Jean Orlando, who “emphasized the reciprocal relationship between patient and nurse and viewed the professional function of nursing as finding out and meeting the patient’s immediate need for help”
  • Hildegard Peplau, whose Theory of Interpersonal Relations emphasized the nurse-client relationship as the foundation of nursing practice
  • Faye Abdellah, whose “Typology of 21 Nursing Problems” “shifted the focus of nursing from a disease-centered approach to a patient-centered approach”
  • Jean Watson, who developed the philosophy of caring, which “highlighted humanistic aspects of nursing as they intertwine with scientific knowledge and nursing practice”

Nursing theory is an essential component of any level of nursing education. For nurses who wish to advance their education, an MSN curriculum offers the opportunity to examine more complex concepts of nursing theory alongside the practical experience students have already gained. Those who aspire to become nurse educators can build on nursing theories to train students and have an impact on the future of nursing.

Advance Your Practice with Higher Education

Ohio University’s online Master of Science in Nursing program offers targeted instruction in nursing education as well as other areas of the nursing field, while reinforcing why nursing theory is important to the field’s future development. Potential MSN degree benefits are numerous, including better pay and expanded career options.

Some courses included in the program are Advanced Diagnostic and Procedures for Clinical Decision Making, Advanced Pharmacology, and Assessment and Intervention for Families. Additionally, four different concentrations offer students the opportunity to choose where to refine their skills. Program concentrations include Adult-Gerontology Acute Care, Psychiatric Mental Health, Nurse Educator, and Family Nurse Practitioner.

Take the first step toward transforming your career with Ohio University’s online MSN program today.

Recommended Readings

What Can I Do with a Master’s in Nursing?

A Look at Today’s Nursing Healthcare Challenges

MSN vs. FNP: Opportunities in Advanced Nursing Practice


Career Trend, “Barriers to Applying a Nursing Theory”

DocShare, “Nursing Theories, and Nursing Practice”

Nurselabs, “Nursing Theories and Theorists”

Nurselabs, “Sister Callista Roy’s Adaptation Model”

Nursing Theory, “Virginia Henderson, Nursing Theorist”