Guide to Continuing Education for RNs

Our insiders weigh in on how continuing education can help you specialize as a nurse and advance your career.

two nurses walking to class
two nurses walking to class

Registered nurses (RNs) aren’t done learning once they’re licensed. RNs are required to take a minimum number of continuing education units (CEUs) each year to maintain their license. But many take even more to fine-tune their skills and provide the best possible care. And that can advance your career and increase your earning potential.

The healthcare industry is in the news almost every day with announcements about the latest research and discoveries, as well as developments in technology, medicine, and treatments.

Patients count on RNs to be informed, and continuing education “is designed to keep nurses up to date in their practice and abreast of current trends and guidelines,” says Beth Hawkes, MSN, RN-BC, and author, columnist for the nursing news site allnurses.com, founder of nursecode.com, and a staff development professional specialist. “For nurses, continuing education is a lifestyle.”

Patients count on nurses to be informed, and continuing education can help you stay current on the latest trends and guidelines.

Nursing Continuing Education Credits and Contact Hours Explained

What exactly are continuing education credits and hours? Depending on your state, you might see requirements for continuing education listed either as contact hours or as continuing education units (CEUs). A single CEU is equal to 10 contact hours, each of which is 50 to 60 minutes of approved activity, didactic or clinical. Most states require 20 to 45 contact hours in continuing education for license renewal (approximately two to four CEUs), but be sure to check your state’s requirements to fully understand what’s expected of you.

How Can Continuing Education Help Me?

nurses in class

Continuing ed isn’t just a box you need to check to maintain your license. It’s also a path to career growth, specialization, and brighter job prospects. Many nurses become avid lifelong learners—swapping textbooks for nursing journals and sharpening their skills with continuing education.

Beyond licensing requirements, continuing education is professional development intended to help you become the best nurse you can be—whether you’re just starting out or are a highly experienced nurse in a leadership position, according to the American Nurses Association.

Jessica Dzubak, MSN, RN, and director of nursing practice at the Ohio Nurses Association, says new nurses can use continuing education to help fill knowledge gaps.

“Finding an accredited provider that offers a wide variety of courses on different topics, such as clinical safety, communication, and nursing law, will be especially beneficial for new nurses,” she says. “Often, professional nursing associations offer these types of courses to support nursing development, and some have dedicated resources specifically for new nurses.”

New nurses can use continuing education courses to help fill knowledge gaps.

For established nurses who want to move into leadership roles, Dzubak suggests they “consider what areas they would like to improve upon—whether it be communication, fiscal responsibility, human resources management, or leadership theories and styles—and then find accredited courses that meet their individual learning needs.”

Whatever your goals and needs, there are likely continuing education courses and programs that will be right for you. However, you’ll want to do some planning to make sure you can complete your courses well in advance of your license renewal deadline.

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Which Courses Do I Need?

There’s a wide range of courses in a variety of formats, from online classes, webinars, and correspondence courses to traditional classroom instruction, nursing conferences, and clinical workshops.

The courses you’ll take will depend on requirements for renewing your license, your personal interests, and your specialty certifications. Some states require continuing education in specific areas such as human trafficking, opioid addiction, domestic violence, and bioterrorism.

Here’s a look at general guidelines for continuing education. Your state might have other requirements as well, so check with your state nursing board before you sign up for a course. 

Nursing Continuing Education at a Glance


Purpose

Required or Optional


RN License and Renewal

  • You choose courses and providers
  • Must improve your nursing practice and fulfill a specified number of hours and/or credits

Required

Courses must be accredited and approved by your state nursing board


State-Mandated Education

  • Specific topics required by the state; examples: human trafficking, domestic violence, opioid addiction
  • You choose the provider

Required

Courses must be accredited and approved by your state nursing board


Specialty Certification and Renewal

  • You choose courses and providers
  • Must focus on a nursing specialty
  • Must meet requirements established by the certification body

Optional

Courses must be accredited and approved by your state nursing board


Personal Interest

  • You choose courses and providers; topic examples: yoga, weight loss, liberal arts
  • No restrictions
  • May not be used for licensing or specialty certification unless course complies

Optional

Nursing board approval not required

What Kind of Classes Can I Take?

There’s an amazing range of courses, offered by many accredited providers, that you can take. In general, Dzubak says, nurses tend to pursue continuing education in these areas:

  • Nursing laws and guidelines, which can vary by state
  • Clinical topics
  • Interpersonal skills, including conflict management, communication tips, and leadership
  • Advocacy
  • Pharmacology

With continuing education, you can earn specialty certification in an area that can position you for advancement while increasing your knowledge and confidence in your field of interest. Many healthcare organizations and hospitals prefer to hire certified nurses and routinely specify a desire for candidates certified in the following areas:

  • Medical-surgical
  • Neonatal
  • Critical care
  • Gerontology
  • Pediatrics
  • Ambulatory care
  • Cardiac vascular nursing
  • Informatics
  • Pain management
  • Psychiatric/mental health

Because the field of nursing is constantly changing, a significant amount of continuing education is necessary to earn and maintain certifications. As a result, nurses with credentials are often viewed as the most motivated and dedicated professionals in their field.

To give you an idea of the range of available continuing education courses, here are just a few examples of courses you could take:

  • Acute and Chronic Pain Assessment and Management: Covers the latest research and treatment for different types of pain and addiction issues
  • Human Trafficking and Exploitation: Provides an overview of human trafficking for those who may intervene in suspected cases of human trafficking and/or exploitation
  • Acute Pancreatitis: Outlines important signs, symptoms, and risk factors for this difficult-to-diagnose condition and compares treatment options
  • Service Animals in Health Care Facilities: Identifies the role of care providers in advocating for individuals with service animals in a medical setting
  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD): Explains best practices for diagnosing, treating, and managing IBD, a debilitating and sometimes deadly disease
  • Legal Implications for Nursing Practice: Increases awareness of potential legal issues and how to use best practices to prevent them
  • Forensic Evidence Collection for Nurses: Trains nurses to provide care to victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, and elder abuse and gather the evidence necessary for prosecution
  • HIV Case Studies: Examines the stages of HIV, identifies treatment options, and explains common complications

What Kind of Classes Don’t Count as Continuing Ed?

You’ll likely need to complete training in basic life support, CPR, and advanced cardiac life support to obtain and maintain your RN license. However, these certifications typically don’t count toward continuing education requirements.

Other activities that aren’t eligible include on-the-job training and employer orientations or presentations. However, if you’re enrolled in a nursing degree program, your coursework may meet your initial continuing education requirements.

What Do Continuing Education Classes Cost?

women nurses talk to nurse educator during class

Course costs vary widely—some are free, while others cost $150 or more. It depends on the course, how it’s delivered, the location, the contact hours or CEUs, and the content. Some employers pay for continuing education or subsidize the cost for selected classes to help you gain valuable expertise in specialty fields.

The cost of continuing education depends on the course, how it’s delivered, the location, the number of hours or credits, and the content. 

Another potential bonus: Some continuing education providers will give you unlimited access to courses for a monthly or annual subscription fee. And because it’s considered professional development, your costs for continuing education may be tax deductible.

Where Can I Find Courses?

When looking for courses, a good place to start is by visiting the websites of national nursing organizations that offer continuing education for certain specialties:

Advanced practice nurses can find continuing education courses here:

All of these organizations offer a range of continuing education options that’ll be approved by your state’s nursing board. Additionally, most states have nursing associations that offer some continuing education classes, many without charge.

Look for Accredited Courses

No matter what kind of activity you choose, Hawkes says to make sure courses are approved by your state board of nursing or the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC), which is recognized by the nursing boards in all states. Also—be sure to confirm that both the provider and the courses are accredited.

“The level of quality among continuing education options varies,” says Dzubak. “Accreditation ensures the education has met a rigorous set of quality standards and that the information is reputable and free of commercial influence.”

I’ve Completed My Courses—Now What?

First you celebrate—it takes time and work to complete continuing education requirements for licensure, certification, and career development. But then, get your paperwork in order.

Create an Electronic Record of Your Continuing Education and Credentials

You’ll need this for a possible audit by your state board of nursing or to show employers. Gather and store this information in a location on your computer that you’ll remember:

  • Course names and descriptions
  • The course provider
  • Completion dates
  • Contact hours or CEUs
  • Credential earned

Also, as a safeguard, print a copy of your records or back up your files so you don’t lose your documentation in a computer meltdown.

You don’t typically need to send these records to your state board, but you’ll need to report your activities when you apply to renew your license. If your state board does do an audit, you’ll need to present your record of continuing education at that time.

Safeguard your continuing education records by printing a copy or backing up your computer files.

In general, you should keep your records for at least two to three license renewal periods. Your state might have specific recordkeeping requirements, so it’s best to check with your board of nursing to make sure you’re following the proper guidelines.

For example, the California Board of Registered Nursing website says that random audits of registered nurses are conducted regularly to verify continuing education compliance, and RNs are required to keep certificates or grade slips for four years as proof of compliance.

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