How To Study for Pharmacology: Key Concepts

Pharmacist writing on clipboard - stock photo

One of the fundamental skills for being a nurse is administering and managing medications for your patients. But there is much more to medication administration than simply handing pills to your patients. With hundreds of thousands of medications used to treat various medical conditions — many of which have both generic and brand names — you must learn how to study for pharmacology in nursing school.

Learning about pharmacology, including how, when and why medications are given, as well as indications and possible side effects, can be overwhelming as a new nurse. But using some tips for studying pharmacology can make learning this nursing skill easier.

In This Article:

What Is the Study of Pharmacology?

Pharmacology is the study and science of medications and compounds that cause biochemical changes in the body. It can also be the study of the normal and abnormal interactions between compounds in humans or animals.1 So, why is understanding pharmacology important in nursing school?

First and foremost, nurses need to know the foundations of pharmacology to ensure patient safety. The right medication, such as pain medicine or antibiotics, can speed up your patient’s healing, whereas the wrong medication can be lethal.

Learning pharmacology is also important to avoid interactions with certain foods or other medications, and to spot possible undesirable side effects, called “adverse effects.” Nurses also need to know pharmacology and the intended effects of medications to be able to assess whether the medication was effective.

How To Study for Pharmacology in Nursing School

Learning all the different types of medications used in pharmacology can be overwhelming due to the complexity of drugs and their effects on the human body, and especially when there are often two names for each medication — generic and brand name. Among the brands, naming systems usually appear to have no pattern, but the main drug categories do often follow rules.

Pro Tip: Use your pharmacology course resources provided to you at your academic institution.

Tips for Studying Pharmacology

Here are five tips to help make studying pharmacology and medications easier:

1. Understand the Fundamentals: Build a strong foundation by understanding basic pharmacology concepts such as drug classifications, mechanisms of action, pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics. Pay close attention to how drugs interact with the body and their potential side effects.

For example, the category of cholesterol lowering medications known as statins all end with -statin, as in rosuvastatin, simvastatin and pravastatin. Similarly, antibiotics follow a naming rule as well: penicillin-based medications end in -cillin, as in amoxicillin, and the macrolides end in -mycin, as in azithromycin or erythromycin.3,4

2. Utilize Visual Aids: Create or use visual aids such as diagrams, flowcharts or flashcards to help you memorize drug names, classifications and key concepts. Visual aids can simplify complex information and make it easier to recall during exams.

Handwritten flashcards can be helpful when studying pharmacology by using both visual and tactile learning to build your understanding of pharmacology.5

3. Practice Active Learning: Engage in active learning techniques, such as explaining concepts to a patient or study partner, or by participating in group discussions. Actively applying pharmacological concepts through case studies or practice questions can help reinforce your understanding and retention of the material.

4. Apply Critical Thinking: Develop critical thinking skills by analyzing patient scenarios and determining appropriate drug therapies based on their condition, medical history and potential drug interactions. Practice critical thinking through simulations or clinical rotations to enhance your ability to make sound clinical decisions.

5. Stay Organized and Consistent: Create a study schedule and allocate specific time slots for pharmacology review each week. Break down the material into smaller snippets and review it each day to reinforce your understanding. Stay organized by keeping track of important drug information, such as dosages, contraindications and adverse reactions, in a structured format.

The 6 Rights of Medication Administration

When using your pharmacology knowledge to give patients medications, don’t forget to use the Six Rights of Medication Administration every time. These six rights are a set of fundamental principles designed to ensure the safe and effective administration of medications.6

1. Right Patient: Verify the correct patient by checking their name, date of birth or hospital identification number, to lessen the chance of a medication error. Most health systems also require that you scan the barcode on the patient’s wristband as well as on the medication.

2. Right Medication: Confirm that the medication being administered is the one prescribed for the patient, including checking the patient’s allergies and the label against the prescription order. Also educate your patient on why they are being prescribed the medication. This will help reinforce your learning, too.

3. Right Dose: Ensure that the dosage being administered is appropriate for the patient based on factors such as age, weight and medical condition. Double-check calculations with a colleague, if necessary. For example: to give 1 gram of Tylenol (acetaminophen), you may need to administer two 500 mg tablets.

4. Right Route: Administer the medication using the correct route as prescribed by the healthcare provider. This could include oral (by mouth, or PO), intravenous (IV), intramuscular (IM), subcutaneous (SQ), topical (on the skin), or other routes. Administering medication via the wrong route can lead to ineffective treatment or adverse reactions. Some medications are safe to be crushed and mixed with food, whereas others are not. Be sure to double-check before doing so.

5. Right Time: Administer the medication at the correct time according to the prescribed schedule. Timeliness is crucial for maintaining therapeutic drug levels in the patient's system and ensuring the effectiveness of the treatment. However, some medications may have specific timing requirements, such as before meals or at bedtime, so it's essential to follow the prescribed schedule accurately.

6. Right Documentation: It's imperative to record each administration of medication immediately after the dose has been provided. Leave detailed notes of any side effects, missed doses, interactions with other medications, etc.

Adhering to these six rights every time helps minimize the risk of medication errors and promotes patient safety. Additionally, some healthcare settings may expand on these rights to include additional considerations, such as the right to refuse medication.7

If you are ever unsure about giving a medication, always stop and ask another nurse or pharmacist to help you through it. By following these tips for studying pharmacology and staying dedicated to your studies, you can work to master this knowledge area in your nursing education.

Pharmacology Courses in Nursing School at GCU

Now that you have a better understanding of the importance of pharmacology for nurses and how to study for pharmacology, you can incorporate safe and proper medication administration into your clinical practice. Having a plan in place can help ensure that your patients are in good hands.

As a student in Grand Canyon University’s accelerated BSN program, you will gain skills lab and clinical experience and learn about pharmacology before you apply it in practical settings. Complete the form on this page to learn more about clinical experiences and nursing degrees through the College of Nursing and Health Care Professions.  

Wikimedia Foundation. (n.d.). Pharmacology. Wikipedia. Retrieved Feb. 24, 2024.

2 UpToDate. (n.d.). Retrieved Feb. 20, 2024.

3 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). All Antibiotic Classes. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved Feb. 21, 2024.

Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (n.d.). Statin side effects: Weigh the benefits and risks. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved Feb. 21, 2024.

5 Team, S. (2020, Dec. 8). 4 types of learning styles: Explaining The vark model. Retrieved Feb. 24, 2024.

6 Hanson, A. (2023, Sept. 4). Nursing rights of medication administration. StatPearls. Retrieved Feb. 24, 2024.

7 Pirotte, B. D. (2023, July 24). Refusal of care. StatPearls. Retrieved Feb. 24, 2024.

Approved by the associate dean of the College of Nursing and Healthcare Professions on April 1, 2024.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.