Concurrent exposure to simulated and authentic experiences during undergraduate medical education is increasing. The impact of gaps or differences between contemporaneous experiences has not been adequately considered. We address two questions. How do new undergraduate medical students understand contemporaneous interactions with simulated and authentic patients? How and why do student perceptions of differences between simulated and authentic patient interactions shape their learning?


We conducted an interpretative thematic secondary analysis of research data comprising individual interviews (n = 23), focus groups (three groups, n = 16), and discussion groups (four groups, n = 26) with participants drawn from two different year cohorts of Year 1 medical students. These methods generated data from 48 different participants, of whom 17 provided longitudinal data. In addition, data from routinely collected written evaluations of three whole Year 1 cohorts (response rates ≥ 88%, n = 378) were incorporated into our secondary analysis dataset. The primary studies and our secondary analysis were conducted in a single UK medical school with an integrated curriculum.


Our analysis identified that students generate knowledge and meaning from their simulated and authentic experiences relative to each other and that the resultant learning differs in quality according to meaning created by comparing and contrasting contemporaneous experiences. Three themes were identified that clarify how and why the contrasting of differences is an important process for learning outcomes. These are preparedness, responsibility for safety, and perceptions of a gap between theory and practice.


We propose a conceptual framework generated by reframing common metaphors that refer to the concept of the gap to develop educational strategies that might maximise useful learning from perceived differences. Educators need to ‘mind’ gaps in collaboration with students if synergistic learning is to be constructed from contemporaneous exposure to simulated and authentic patient interactions. The strategies need to be tested in practice by teachers and learners for utility. Further research is needed to understand gaps in other contexts.