The different types of nursing knowledge (and why they’re important)

Growing numbers of people today are interested in pursuing a career in nursing, not least because of the enormous diversity of specialisms the profession offers. And yet it would be simplistic to think in terms of “acquiring nursing knowledge” as a prelude to clinical practice. It’s more accurate to consider the multiple types of nursing knowledge competent professionals must possess.

In what follows, we’ll explain more about the types of knowledge professionally qualified nurses must be proficient in – and why they’re essential.

Five types of nursing knowledge essential to practice


As Forbes recently observed, many entry-level nurses are drawn to becoming further qualified as nurse practitioners, an advanced tier of the profession granting its graduates access to various specialisms. Some, however, wish to use their years of clinical experience to help teach up-and-coming nurses how to improve patients’ lives and clinical outcomes as specialist Nurse Educators.

Happily, a growing number of well-established brick-and-mortar universities are now offering a fully-accredited nursing educator online program, allowing prospective nurse educators to complete their studies around existing work and family commitments, not instead of them.

These professionals demonstrate a high-level, in-depth understanding of the five core knowledge bases essential to nursing. These are:

Procedural knowledge: This refers to a form of internalized, practical “how to do it” knowledge based on a range of procedures that nurses have observed being undertaken by more experienced practitioners (and subsequently performed by themselves) on numerous previous occasions. They include taking blood samples, drawing up and administering intravenous (IV) drips, understanding and administering antibiotic regimens, etc. A form of “embodied” knowledge, when proficient in it, nurses can perform the procedures effortlessly and rapidly. It’s vitally important, as errors and bungles can seriously harm patients.

Ward cultural knowledge: a nurse’s familiarity with the written and unwritten norms and rules of the ward where they’re working. Functionally, it ensures that all predefined nursing activities are effectively carried out. This understanding allows nurses to “juggle” multiple tasks to “get it all done properly.” Ward culture often favors “doers” – even when they’ve completed all tasks, nurses often improvise something else to do because they’re aware of a background culture of always being busy.

Personal practice knowledge refers to the evolving ‘personalization’ of procedural and theoretical knowledge (see below), which is shaped by its personal application by a practicing nurse. It encompasses an empathic understanding of an individual’s experience of illness and care delivery. It can be enriched by observing other experienced practitioners working with patients daily and sharing learning with other nurses.

Theoretical knowledge: The indispensable clinical, pharmaceutical, anatomical, etc., knowledge nurses acquire in formal teaching settings, books, and scientific journals. It enables a nurse to know what a “normal” reading consists of and whether a patient’s reading falls within the normal spectrum.

Reflexive knowledge: In many respects, an amalgamation of the four knowledge types described above, reflexive knowledge is a kind of experience-honed “dynamic” knowledge. It enables nurses to recognize the type of expertise they need to draw upon speedily in specific crisis situations. For example, it can be life-saving, allowing the nurses to act swiftly when a patient appears to be in a clinical crisis.

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