How to apply motivation theory in nursing education

Updated November 21, 2016

Motivation theory proposes reasons for behaviour. One classic approach is Abraham Maslow's "Toward a Psychology of Being" in 1946. Maslow explains in his later text "Motivation and Personality" in 1954 that individuals move through a hierarchy of motivating needs from physiological to safety, social, esteem and, finally, self-actualisation. He suggests that individuals meet each category of needs in that order. Nursing students can identify situations where these needs are met in their practice of nursing.

Teach the students the hierarchy of needs. Ask students to identify an experience to match each level of need. One example is to address the experience of safety in walking across a large hospital car park late at night.

Tell the students to list needs of patients in the same way. An example is the physiological need to address bleeding or pain from an injury.

Present a scenario of hospital duties that includes a nurse acting to address a need. One example is meeting the need for safety in the intake and medical history process.

Identify the roles played in the scenario, such as patient, parent and nurse. Assign the roles to students. Ask the role players to act out the scenario. In the discussion of the role play review the hierarchy of needs. Discuss these needs in the areas of physiological, safety, social, esteem and, finally, self-actualisation.

Instruct the other students to assess the nurse's behaviours that met the identified need. Give examples such as meeting a safety need by asking about allergies to medicines.

Discuss what needs the nurse may have experienced, such as a need for esteem by being seen as competent.


Motivation and needs are individual experiences and may be described differently by individual students.


The needs of students may be different than the needs of actual employed nurses. An example of this is the need of students for peer approval as social acceptance and the need of employees to experience self-actualisation as a professional who can act independently.

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