Rounds with Leadership: Moving Ahead with Essentials Implementation

“AACN is committed to achieving the preferred future for nursing education outlined in the 2021 Essentials and to communicating the fundamental "WHY" behind the importance of fully embracing this call for transformation.”

Three years ago, AACN members made a bold decision to transform the future of nursing education and practice. With the endorsement of The Essentials: Core Competencies for Professional Nursing Education, academic nursing leaders took the first step toward implementing a new model and framework for preparing nurses to thrive across practice settings and address gaps that exist in the healthcare system.

The re-envisioned Essentials were developed by an expert task force, convened by the AACN Board of Directors in 2018, which included a 7-member leadership team, 28 representatives from academia and practice, and senior AACN staff. Using an iterative and inclusive process involving hundreds of academic and practice leaders, faculty, students, and other interested parties, the task force spent nearly 3 years developing and refining the Essentials based on feedback received. The 2021 Essentials represent academic nursing’s best thinking on how to effectively educate nurses for entry- and advanced-level practice.

A key driver behind the development of the 2021 Essentials was a strong desire to prepare nurses with a common set of competencies. By all accounts, variability across nursing education programs impacts the practice-readiness of new graduates. This reality was echoed by the many practice leaders who were instrumental in shaping the revised competency expectations. We strongly believe that nursing has a responsibility to the public, practice leaders, and our students to advance a consistent set of competencies for all nursing graduates. 

The 2021 Essentials offers a consensus-based approach to reducing variability among nursing programs by defining competencies and sub-competencies across all programs and levels. We recognize that both the competencies and sub-competencies are outcomes of the learning experience; neither stifles innovation nor mandates prescription in order to be achieved. In fact, many schools moving ahead with implementing the Essentials are enthusiastic about the opportunity to be creative as part of the work to redesign their nursing programs. Through our faculty workshops, the Champions network, and the coaching program, we are seeing schools fully embracing the use of the competencies and sub-competencies in their programs. 

To facilitate the work underway at schools nationwide to re-envision curriculum and clinical experiences, AACN issued a statement on April 30 reaffirming its support for the full implementation of the 2021 AACN Essentials. In addition to outlining the “why” behind the need for evolving nursing education, the statement reinforces our continuing commitment to supporting schools in various stages of implementation, including the transition to competency-based education (CBE).

As part of this support, AACN is committed to offering guidance related to CBE and learning assessment as well as updating our core documents to reflect contemporary expectations. To that end, the AACN Board of Directors recently endorsed a white paper titled Practice Experiences in Entry-Level Post-Licensure Nursing Programs, which replaces a previous version titled Expectations for Practice Experiences in RN to Baccalaureate Curriculum that was released in 2012.

The new white paper reflects changes in health care and aligns with the expectations for entry-level post-licensure programs outlined in the latest Essentials. The focus was expanded beyond baccalaureate degree-completion programs to include all entry-level, post-licensure nursing programs: RN-BSN, RN-MSN, and RN-DNP. The document emphasizes the need for both direct and indirect care experiences as well as learning experiences in all four spheres of care and across the lifespan. The white paper features ten examples of practice experiences with the relevant Essentials domains, competencies, sub-competencies, and concepts for each learning experience identified to assist with curriculum design. We encourage all nurse educators to review this new paper and explore the other resources, tools, training, and guidance developed by AACN to assist schools in transitioning to the Essentials and CBE.

Transforming our approach to preparing professional nurses takes courage, creativity, commitment, and collaboration. As academic nurse leaders, we are on this journey together with our practice partners as we navigate toward a preferred future for nursing education.