A refined higher order plate theory is developed to investigate the actuation mechanism of piezoelectric materials surface bonded or embedded in composite laminates. The current analysis uses a displacement field which accurately accounts for transverse shear stresses. Some higher order terms are identified by using the conditions that shear stresses vanish at all free surfaces. Therefore, all boundary conditions for displacements and stresses are satisfied in the present theory. The analysis is implemented using the finite element method which provides a convenient means to construct a numerical solution due to the discrete nature of the actuators. The higher order theory is computationally less expensive than a full 3D analysis. The theory is also shown to agree well with published experimental results. Numerical examples are presented for composite plates with thickness ranging from thin to very thick.