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To investigate the nature of student engagement in interprofessional interaction while on placement.Due to continuing emphasis on improving interprofessional collaboration, UK educational establishments are required to offer prequalifying health and social care students interprofessional education in order that they acquire relevant competencies. However, few formal interprofessional education initiatives occur in practice settings and little is known about prequalifying students' non-formal learning about interprofessional issues while on placement.From 2003–2005 an English Faculty of Health and Social Care conducted a qualitative study to explore opportunities for interprofessional learning and working available to students in practice placement settings.Case studies were conducted in a coronary care ward, a medical ward for older patients, a maternity unit, a paediatric unit, an integrated community learning disabilities team and a residential facility for adults with challenging behaviour. Gaining access was complex, due to variable student timetables and UK research governance requirements. Sites were therefore selected according to geographical area and timing of student placements. Details of interprofessional interaction (formal and informal) were observed and recorded. Interviews were conducted with a convenience sample of 20 practitioners and 15 students. Data were analysed thematically.Student experience varied considerably. Contributing factors included the influence of doctors and differing professional cultures; mentors' support for student engagement in interprofessional working; and individual students' confidence levels. Most sites were managed by nurses and some senior nurses were proactive in involving students interprofessionally. However, many students lacked systematic support for interprofessional engagement.Students lack parity of experience concerning interprofessional activity on placement. Where they do not have systematic support, their engagement depends mainly on their own confidence.Senior nurses are ideally placed to promote environments where students can develop interprofessional competencies through systematic interprofessional engagement.