The class requirements for RN qualifying degrees will differ slightly depending on the level of education you plan to pursue. Most nursing programs will cover a wide array of material from math and chemistry to psychology and physiology. Some nursing students will choose electives based on their desired specialty, such as pediatrics, oncology, or geriatrics.
For a glance into 15 of the assorted common courses that an RN will see throughout their academic career, read on below.
1. Nursing Fundamentals
This is one of the first classes you can expect to take in a nursing program, often required during your first semester. Nursing fundamentals courses give you an overview of what it means to be a nurse, how healthcare works, and potential careers and roles for nurses. The focus is on the basics of patient care and fundamental nursing skills. Your nursing fundamentals course also prepares you for more advanced topics in particular areas. This course may have different names at different schools, such as “Nursing 101” or “Introduction to Nursing,” but it will cover the same topics.
This is one of the most important RN courses because it sets the foundation for all other nursing school classes and clinicals. It also provides you with a clearer understanding of nursing and different nursing roles, which helps you confirm whether nursing is the right career for you.
Physiology is the study of the human body and how it functions. You’ll learn about the names and functions of different parts of the body and how they all function together, both in a healthy person and throughout different types of illnesses and injuries. This is usually one of the earlier required classes, since many subsequent courses rely on your understanding how the body works.
Physiology also includes topics that are important for your own health and safety, such as how to safely lift and move patients. Physiology also ensures that you and other healthcare professionals are using the same terminology to describe the body and how it functions, so mastering this helps ensure effective communication and medical notes. This makes it a vital part of patient safety and positive health outcomes.
3. Introduction to Psychology
Introductory psychology is typically a prerequisite course needed to enter nursing programs. It covers principles and practices of psychology and helps nurses understand both psychology as a medical discipline, and how to use applied psychology as a nurse and communicator. Topics include cognition (how people think and make decisions), personality and behavior, organizational psychology, and the psychology of illness.
Studying psychology can help you communicate better, understand your own personality and those of others, and make better decisions individually and as part of a group.
Microbiology is the study of microorganisms, any organism too small to see without a microscope, including viruses, bacteria, and certain types of fungi. This is also a prerequisite course often taken before entering nursing school, because understanding the role that microorganisms play in human health is necessary to understand many other aspects of healthcare. Topics include microorganisms that cause and help prevent disease, including the emerging field of the human biome, and the microorganisms that are part of the human body. This course generally includes lab work as well as classroom work.
This is one of the most important nursing prerequisite classes because of how important microorganisms are to human health. It sets the groundwork for infection control, population health, clinical theory, and nursing practices.
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Gerontology is the studying of aging. RN classes in gerontology include topics such as conditions associated with aging, the psychology of aging, how to effectively communicate with aging adults, and end-of-life concerns for nursing. Gerontology is included in nursing major classes because of the important role nurses play in providing care to aging patients. Because it is a specialized class, most nursing students take it during or after their second year.
This is a foundational course for nurses who plan to specialize in gerontology but vital for all nurses because of the aging US population. Aside from pediatrics and obstetrics, older adults make up a large and growing proportion of general and specialty care patients, so the ability to understand their needs and provide effective nursing care is vital.
6. Psychology and Mental Health
While introductory classes on psychology cover all aspects of psychology, including organizational psychology, RN classes on psychology and mental health focus on providing mental healthcare. Because understanding the psychological aspects of health is important to many other nursing school classes, this course is usually included in the first or second years. These courses cover mental health conditions and their treatment, as well as the special legal and ethical considerations associated with caring for patients with mental health conditions.
Physical and mental health are closely related, and so this course and other RN courses on mental health are vital to understanding patient well-being. Because nurses provide so much hands-on care to patients and are a vital communications link for patients, their ability to understand mental health directly affects the quality of their nursing.
Pharmacology is the study of medications. Nursing courses in pharmacology focus on the safe administration of medications, including opioids and other substances with the potential for abuse; different methods for administering them; how to watch for medication errors; and potential drug interactions. In addition to learning about medications and how they work, you will learn about the major pharmacology reference sources, including databases and texts.
While nurses (other than advanced practice nurses) do not prescribe medications, they must understand the fundamentals of pharmacology in order to ensure patient safety and answer patients’ questions.
8. Women and Infant Health
Women and infant health covers women’s health, reproductive health, pregnancy, delivery, and infant development. Nursing school classes in this subject emphasize the nurse’s role in patient education and communication, as well as their role in providing direct nursing care. Generally, this is a foundational course that students take earlier in their nursing school curriculum. Some schools offer this topic in two courses, one in reproductive health and the other in infant health.
This foundational course covers general nursing concepts, as well as preparing nurses who specialize in women and infant health for advanced courses. These courses can include pediatrics, gynecology, or obstetric nursing.
9. Leadership Management
Leadership management is typically offered later in RN curriculum since it requires broader knowledge of the scope of nursing. These classes include management and administration, staff leadership and motivation, legal and ethical aspects of leadership, nursing strategic planning, and healthcare administration. The curriculum combines management theory and case studies of how that theory applies to real-life nursing situations.
In addition to preparing nurses for leadership roles, these nursing school classes prepare nurses to understand nursing leadership functions so that they can understand their own role in their organization. While there’s no substitute for real-world experience to teach leadership, leadership management courses also provide a theoretical underpinning to understanding organizational behavior and management theory.
10. Ethics in Nursing
Ethics in nursing is a core class because of the many difficult ethical situations that nurses face, no matter where they practice. RN classes in ethics cover topics such as professional conduct, conflicts of interest, health equity, diversity and inclusion, and appropriate responses to unethical behavior. Like leadership classes, ethics classes combine theory and, so be prepared to critically analyze ethical issues.
Throughout their career, nurses will face ethical dilemmas that might not have an obvious right or wrong answer. No matter how ethical you may be as an individual, nursing major classes in ethics provide you with the mental framework to think through dilemmas and find the best resolution.
11. Community and Environmental Nursing
Community and environmental nursing is a branch of public health. These courses, which are typically offered in BSN programs, look at how the community and environment affect health and how to promote health in different communities and environments. Students will study factors including community safety, pollution and its impact on health, and community design for health in urban, suburban, and rural settings. As part of this course, you are likely to study your own community and the factors impacting its health.
As frontline health workers, nurses are among the first individuals to be in contact with individuals in need of information on environmental hazards or communicable diseases. An understanding of the influence of community and environmental factors on health can allow nurses to better communicate with local leaders and organizations. This may be especially critical for at-risk or underserved populations.
12. Care Transitions
Care transition programs teach students about the process of transferring patients from one health environment to another, changing treatments, or discharging patients. The course covers other subjects such as health promotion, risk reduction, safety standards, and healthcare interventions.
Transferring medically complex patients between healthcare settings can have a significant impact on patient comfort or even health outcomes. Transition processes are especially at-risk for human error. Nurses must understand how to transfer important patient information including health records, medication information, and adverse reactions between settings.
13. Population Health
Population health is sometimes offered as a capstone course to include a clinical intensive or synthesized experience within the public health industry. This course explores information and processes within complex healthcare systems and social-ecological theories within the public health system. It covers topics such as epidemiology, promoting healthy behaviors, health equity, and increasing access to health care. During this course, you’ll learn about the social factors that affect health and the healthcare system, including government, employment and income, media messaging about health and disease, and public health initiatives such as vaccinations.
While much of your career as a nurse will be responding to individual patients, those patients and their nursing needs are affected by population health factors. Understanding these factors and how they work helps you promote health at a different level. This is also a vital subject if you plan to go into nursing administration or healthcare strategy.
14. Clinical Theory
Clinical theory teaches you the theoretical underpinnings of medicine and nursing, and how medical and nursing practices are designed, tested, and applied. It is typically one of the later RN classes, as it requires some familiarity with nursing and healthcare theory and practice. In these courses, you will learn about how different models of medicine, health, and healthcare apply to nursing. You will also learn how to apply these theories to your daily work in nursing as you encounter different parts of the healthcare system. For an ADN degree, nursing school classes may include elements of clinical theory rather than having a separate class, while at the BSN level, this is more likely to be a separate class.
Clinical theory courses help you think more strategically about health and healthcare, and are particularly important for nurses preparing for roles in healthcare management and leadership or advanced practice nursing.
15. Clinical Study
Clinical study (often abbreviated as “clinicals”) is a vital part of becoming an RN, since it requires fieldwork hours in a clinical setting such as a hospital, physician’s office, health clinic, or other healthcare facility. During this course, you will apply both the skills and the theory you learned, under the guidance of a preceptor. These courses usually start with theory, move on to simulations, and end with you working with your own caseload.
Clinical study is a vital test of how ready you are to become a nurse, as well as a chance to learn hands-on about different healthcare settings and specialties. This makes it one of, if not the most important, of the classes required for nursing.
Brandy Gleason, MSN, MHA, BC-NC
Brandy Gleason, MSN, MHA, BC-NC, is a nursing professional with nearly 20 years of varied nursing experience. Gleason currently teaches as an assistant professor of nursing within a prelicensure nursing program and coaches graduate students. Her passion and area of research centers around coaching nurses and nursing students to build resilience and avoid burnout.
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