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Guide to nursing CEUs

Navigating CEUs for Nurses in Continuing Education

Side view of female nurse researching education options for her career.

Lifelong learning is an important aspect of maintaining a competitive edge in nearly all professions, but is an especially critical piece of nursing. Nursing continuing education (CE), also referred to in general terms as "nursing CE," can include attending workshops, viewing webinars, going to see an expert deliver a talk on a particular topic, enrolling in courses and more. As the American Nurses Association (ANA) explains, "While ongoing learning is essential to ensure the best patient outcomes, it’s also a great opportunity for you to explore your own interests or even become a recognized expert in your field."1

You should approach the responsibility of continuing education as an opportunity to invest in yourself. Fortunately, you typically get to choose how you want to earn your nursing CE credits. From figuring out if it's required for your state or not, understanding the importance of CE and what types of things you could learn, let's dive into figuring out how to get the most from your continuing nursing education.

What's the difference between CEUs and contact hours

To start with, let's clarify a bit of vocabulary. Whether your employer requires you to reach a specific number of contact hours, or a course says that it's worth one continuing education unit, they're referring to the same thing. Despite what the name might make you think, "contact hours" aren't necessarily clinical-based or time spent with patients. Think about continuing education units (CEUs) and contact hours like feet and inches: they measure the same thing but in different amounts. One contact hour refers to roughly 50-60 minutes of instruction in an approved course. Ten contact hours make up one continuing education unit. Keep this distinction in mind when tracking hours to make sure you maintain an accurate measurement of both nursing CEUs and contact hours so you can easily provide whichever unit is requested.

Is continuing education mandatory for nurses?

The first step when looking into CE courses is to figure out if there are any requirements you need to meet, whether for licensure in your state, as mandated by your employer or in order to apply to a nursing degree program.

Some states require a certain number of continuing education units in order to maintain licensure, while others give it as one option among several methods for achieving nursing license renewal. For example, the Oklahoma Board of Nursing sets the following guidelines:2

"Registered Nurses and Licensed Practical Nurses licensed in the State of Oklahoma must meet continuing qualifications for practice, by completing one or more of the following requirements within the past two years prior to the expiration date of the license:

1. Employment in a position that requires a registered nurse/practical nurse license with verification of at least 520 work hours; or

2. Completion of at least twenty-four (24) contact hours of continuing education applicable to nursing practice; or

3. Current certification in a nursing specialty area; or

4. Completion of a Board-approved refresher course; or

5. Completion of at least six (6) academic semester credit hours of nursing coursework at the licensee’s current level of licensure or higher.

Note the "or" at the end of each of those statements. While we would highly recommend nursing continuing professional development for everyone, if you're working as an RN already, you may not necessarily need it.

In other states, nurses must complete continuing education courses for licensure. In Illinois, for example, 20 hours of approved nursing continuing education is required per every 2-year license renewal cycle.3 Additionally, starting in Illinois in 2024 and currently in California, nurses also have a few mandatory CE courses like implicit bias training, sexual harassment prevention training and a course on Alzheimer's and dementia.3,4 To find out what exactly is required of nurses where you practice, check the state board of nursing website and your employment contract. If you're looking for nursing CE in order to apply to a school, review admissions requirements to find out if anything is required.

Choosing the Right CEUs

Continuing education covers a wide breadth of topics and comes in a lot of forms. Often, state requirements will say something vague like "continuing education courses must be relevant to the practice of nursing" but should offer some more suggestions drilling down into accepted or suggested content and approved entities for seeking out continuing education.

Types of Nursing CEUs

Nursing continuing education courses today are made to work with the intense schedules nurses often have. There are options for online, self-paced CEUs, conferences by accredited organizations that give you the opportunity to network while earning a swath of credits, live or on-demand webinars and more. If you work at a hospital, especially a teaching and research hospital, there are likely opportunities to earn credits through visiting lecturers or speakers or in featured workshops. Check with the head of nursing education for these sorts of opportunities.

If you're looking to earn a certificate, there's likely several courses you need to take which you can find on the website of the American Nurses Association (ANA). Once you're ready to prepare for a certification exam check out the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) for study guides, exams and more.

If you're simply earning hours to maintain licensure the ANA is still a great place to start. Some ANA online continuing education courses are free while others generally range from $20 to $150, with discounts for ANA members.5

Align with your career goals

Continuing education courses are required for most certifications whether you're becoming a clinical nurse specialist, nurse practitioner or looking to earn a certificate in a specialty like gerontology, oncology, mental health and more. But the ANA and other accredited organizations offer a wide variety of topics for you to shape your career in a direction that interests you.

A few ANA nursing CE courses include:5

  • The Basic Science of Viruses
  • Comorbid Mental Illness on Acute Medical Units
  • Actionable Allyship to Address Racism in Nursing
  • Caring for Patients with Rheumatoid Arthritis in the Community
  • Innovation in Healthcare: The role of Creativity, Design and Innovation in Nursing
  • Pediatric Pain Management
  • Mastering Mindfulness

What doesn't count for continuing education?

This could depend on the specific credentialing center you're working with or your workplace requirements but it's generally safe to say the following types of courses will not qualify:

  • Any course for the general public (non-RNs/LPNs, etc)
  • Orientation courses about the policies and procedures of an organization
  • Economic/personal finance courses like for investing
  • Personal weight loss and yoga classes
  • CPR and BLS courses (these are typically required for certifications and licensure but do not qualify as CE)
  • Courses for healthcare professionals other than nurses as determined by your governing body

Once again: it's up to you to do the proper research to have confidence that the credits you're earning will apply to your needs: the state requirements applicable where you practice, the guidelines of whatever certificates or degree you are trying to earn, or to meet the employment requirements of your organization.

Don't forget: Track your CEUs

Make sure you maintain a spreadsheet of your hours and keep a folder on your computer or a bookmarked folder in your web browser of your certificates of completion. The certificate should include information like the number of contact hours completed, the name of the sponsor or provider of the courses and the date you completed training. While not all jobs or state boards request certificates upon application, if you ever encounter an audit, it's helpful to already know where your materials are.

Nursing CE checklist

  • Consider your schedule and learning style to determine what types of continuing education classes you'd like to take
  • Choose a reputable provider of nursing continuing education courses
  • Check if the CEUs are approved by your state board of nursing
  • Plan ahead: You don't want to end up trying to earn all your credits in just a few months, take opportunities when they arise
  • Track your number of CEUs along with your certificates of completion in one place

Nursing Programs with OCU

One of the most reliable ways to earn nursing CEUs is through an accredited university degree program. Typically, one academic semester will equal fifteen contact hours or 15 CEUs.3 Plus, not only will you learn critical lessons in patient care and leadership but you'll also have the opportunity to network with other nurses and open up new career opportunities.
At Oklahoma City University, you can even complete your entire degree online with no in-person commitments. We offer 100% online programs for the RN-BSN, MSN and RN-MSN, each led by our expert nursing faculty. Named by Niche as the #1 School for Nursing in Oklahoma,6 a degree from OCU can help you make strides in the field of nursing.

Oklahoma City University has engaged Everspring, a leading provider of education and technology services, to support select aspects of program delivery.

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Oklahoma City University has engaged Everspring, a leading provider of education and technology services, to support select aspects of program delivery.