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Introduction The need to use outpatient clinics as a major learning environment in hospitals for students and doctors-in-training is clear. However, consultant supervisors perceive major barriers to this and continue to rely heavily on traditional inpatient learning. This quantitative study examines what approaches consultant supervisors employ in outpatient learning, together with what they perceive themselves to use and what they would value in further training. Methods We observed learning episodes for students and doctors-in-training in medical and surgical clinics. A questionnaire on outpatient teaching was also sent to consultant doctors and surgeons. This was based on these observations and focus groups with students and doctors-in-training. Results There was an overall survey response rate of 62% (194/311). The dominant forms of learning we observed were ‘arms-length’ supervision for doctors-in-training and ‘modelling’ for students. Only 7% of learning episodes involved a doctor-in-training doing something under direct supervision. In contrast to the observation results, consultants considered that students and doctors-in-training received a lot of direct supervision and interaction. For example, 45% considered that doctors-in-training ‘may see patients with me in a joint consultation’. Only 30% of respondents would be interested in staff development in learning in outpatient clinics. Conclusions Although consultants reported that they frequently used an active approach to learning in outpatient clinics, modelling was used predominantly for students and arms-length supervision was used for doctors-in-training.