Distributed hydrologic models capable of simulating fully-coupled surface water and groundwater flow are increasingly used to examine problems in the hydrologic sciences. Several techniques are currently available to couple the surface and subsurface; the two most frequently employed approaches are first-order exchange coefficients (a.k.a., the surface conductance method) and enforced continuity of pressure and flux at the surface-subsurface boundary condition. The effort reported here examines the parameter sensitivity of simulated hydrologic response for the first-order exchange coefficients at a well-characterized field site using the fully coupled Integrated Hydrology Model (InHM). This investigation demonstrates that the first-order exchange coefficients can be selected such that the simulated hydrologic response is insensitive to the parameter choice, while simulation time is considerably reduced. Alternatively, the ability to choose a first-order exchange coefficient that intentionally decouples the surface and subsurface facilitates concept-development simulations to examine real-world situations where the surface-subsurface exchange is impaired. While the parameters comprising the first-order exchange coefficient cannot be directly estimated or measured, the insensitivity of the simulated flow system to these parameters (when chosen appropriately) combined with the ability to mimic actual physical processes suggests that the first-order exchange coefficient approach can be consistent with a physics-based framework. Copyright © 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.