The Journal of Continuing Education in Nursing

Administrative Angles 

Continuing Education as a Core Component of Nursing Professional Development

Jean Shinners, PhD, RN-BC; Jennifer Graebe, MSN, RN, NEA-BC


Nursing professional development and continuing nursing education are often used interchangeably. However, there is a difference, and as educators we need to be able to speak to these differences. This article depicts the unique aspects of both and their valuable contributions to the profession of nursing. [J Contin Educ Nurs. 2020;51(1):6–8].


Nursing professional development and continuing nursing education are often used interchangeably. However, there is a difference, and as educators we need to be able to speak to these differences. This article depicts the unique aspects of both and their valuable contributions to the profession of nursing. [J Contin Educ Nurs. 2020;51(1):6–8].

Nursing professional development (NPD) is a process that focuses on improving and expanding the knowledge, skills, and behaviors of nurses with educational opportunities and training. NPD includes both postlicense academic education and continuing nursing education. Although the individual nurse is responsible for their educational choices, the NPD practitioner provides guidance to meet both professional and organizational goals. For example, nursing has evolved into multiple specialty practices and the NPD practitioner supports RNs in obtaining certification in their specialty area. On the other hand, the health care organization is required to meet regulatory standards (e.g., accreditations, The Joint Commission) that require ongoing staff education. Both of these educational opportunities fall under the auspices of nursing professional development.

Learning Across the Professional Life Span

As RNs transition from their initial academic education to their RN role, they begin their journey of lifelong learning. Ongoing education may be formal or informal and may affirm current knowledge on a specific topic, expand knowledge and practice in an area of specialty, as well as help the RN to investigate additional opportunities for professional development and career advancement. Price and Reichert (2017) used a focus group approach to investigate nurses' perceptions of professional development in three career categories: students, early-career RNs, and mid- to late-career RNs. Findings showed that students and early-career RNs were looking for education and professional development to ensure a strong practice base, as well as a means of transitioning into practice. Professional development opportunities were used to assist with career ladder progression and identifying possible career trajectories. Mid- to late-career RNs approached NPD within the context of lifelong learning, advancing and maintaining competence, and providing quality care. Of interest was that some participants in the mid- to late-career category identified an organization that invests in continuing professional development opportunities to “ensure continuous growth in their practice and provide optimal quality patient care” (Price & Reichert, 2017, 17) as a contribution to a healthy work environment.

The Value of Nursing Professional Development

NPD practitioners are often challenged to demonstrate the value of NPD activities. This can be done in multiple ways. Showing an alignment of NPD activities can be achieved with organizational goals such as RN recruitment and retention, highlighting its impact on nursing work satisfaction, and including NPD as part of the organization's strategic goals for quality patient care. Another demonstration of NPD value relates to its return on investment. Garrison and Beverage (2018) provided a process that includes calculations for tracking the return on investment for NPD activities. The results of this process help the NPD practitioner to communicate the value of educational activities, as well as to use the information to “assist with evaluating education priorities and allocating resources based on statistically relevant data” (Garrison & Beverage, 2018, 11).

No matter how the NPD practitioner is calculating value, communicating results to other members of the leadership team when the work is completed is of importance. In her editorial “Nursing Professional Development Demonstrating Value—Added Service,” Schmidt (2018) declared that it is “essential to use the language that business enterprise leaders understand in order to demonstrate alignment with organizational goals” (p. 241).

Nursing Professional Development Certification

The NPD practitioner “actively supports, promotes, and demonstrates nursing professional development as a nursing practice specialty” (Harper & Maloney, 2016, p. 54). As an expert in professional development, they may also choose to demonstrate their expertise with specialty certification. NPD certification is a voluntary, specialty certification that benefits not only the RN but also the organization and the patients and families who RNs serve. RNs believe certification reflects a higher level of expertise and certified RNs self-report more confidence in their clinical skills. There is also a potential for a higher salary when certified, and some organizations provide incentives to obtain and maintain certification. Research also shows a connection between certification and patient outcomes (Boyle, Cramer, Potter, & Staggs, 2015) and satisfaction scores (Martin, Arenas-Montoya, & Barnett, 2015).

Continuing Education

Continuing education (CE) occurs after initial academic education is completed and may be delivered with a variety of programs, activities, and technologies. In the past, many RNs related CE to obtaining a predetermined number of hours required to maintain their certification and/or professional license; however, according to the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC, 2015) continuing nursing education activities are “learning activities intended to build upon the educational and experiential bases of the professional RN for the enhancement of practice, education, administration, research, or theory development, to the end of improving the health of the public and RNs' pursuit of their professional career goals” (p. 44). These activities may be provided in multiple ways that include self-study, Web-based, classroom, simulation, conferences, workshops, seminars, or a combination of any of those.

CE is only one component of NPD and the provision of CE is part of the role of the NPD practitioner as learner facilitator. The development, implementation, and evaluation of CE follows a logical process to ensure its quality. Dickerson and Graebe (2018) noted that all CE begins with “the identification of a gap or problem in practice or opportunity for improvement that has created the request for the education” (p. 4) and culminates with the evaluation of the activity's influence on both practice and organizational goals (Dickerson, 2019).

The Value of Continuing Education

Whether a health care professional engages in CE for personal or professional growth, the value of the experience is often up to the learner as participant. The old saying “you get out what you put in” is very true when it comes to learning. For some, the value is obvious—expanding knowledge on a given topic or acquiring the skills to move to another area of practice. For others, the value of CE may be less obvious. In her editorial “Professional Resilience Through Continuing Education—A Possible Benefit” Allen (2019) connected participation in a live CE activity “with new knowledge and skills, combined with an attitude of ‘I can do this’” and suggested that a positive learning experience can help serve “as a source for building resilience in a very demanding profession” (p. 51).

Perhaps the greatest value of CE may be the potential it has to change practice. This premise is supported by the work of Bryant and Posey (2019), who conducted research that focused on CE and the participants' intent and actual change in practice. Their study included questions about intent to change and a follow up whether the change happened. Their findings showed “almost all who intended to change practice followed through with implementing their intended changes” (p. 379). Thus, we can surmise that participants who are fully engaged in a learning experience may choose to use their new knowledge and/or skills to change their practices with patients and others.

Accreditation in Nursing Continuing Professional Development

The ANCC offers voluntary accreditation to organizations that “provide high-quality continuing nursing education (accredited providers) or demonstrate the ability to approve other organizations or individuals that provide high-quality continuing nursing education for professional RNs (accredited approvers)” (ANCC, 2015, p. 1). In 2019, ANCC Primary Accreditation officially changed its name to Nursing Continuing Professional Development (NCPD). This was to provide clarity of the purpose of the accreditation program and maintain consistency with the current language used in the continuing professional development space. ANCC accreditation in NCPD emphasizes designing, implementing, and evaluating NCPD that affects performance, team, patient, and/or systems outcomes.


The year 2020 is being recognized by the World Health Organization (2019) as the Year of the Nurse and Midwife, and nurses everywhere are being challenged to lead, innovate, and excel. With a focus on interprofessional collaboration and learning, NPD practice and CE is continuously being transformed to do just that. Advances in learning theory and educational methods and technologies encourage RNs to use NCPD as an innovative tool to advance their professional practice to meet personal, professional, and patient care outcomes. As leaders and facilitators of learning, the NPD practitioner supports evidence-based practice and quality improvement through leveraging NCPD as a means to promote change and growth.


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Dr. Shinners is Executive Director, Versant Center for the Advancement of Nursing, Hobe Sound, Florida. Dr. Shinners is also the current chair of American Nurses Credentialing Center's Commission on Accreditation Practice Transition Program. Ms. Graebe is Director, Accreditation Nursing Continuing Professional Development and Joint Accreditation, American Nurses Credentialing Center, Silver Spring, Maryland.

The authors have disclosed no potential conflicts of interest, financial or otherwise.

Address correspondence to Jean Shinners, PhD, RN-BC, Executive Director, Versant Center for the Advancement of Nursing, P.O. Box 401450, Las Vegas, NV 89140; e-mail:


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