Objectives: Medical councils worldwide have outlined new standards for postgraduate medical education. This means that residency programmes will have to integrate modern educational views into the clinical workplace. Postgraduate medical education is often characterised as a process of learning from experience. However, empirical evidence regarding the learning processes of residents in the clinical workplace is lacking. This qualitative study sought insight into the intricate process of how residents learn in the clinical workplace. Methods: We carried out a qualitative study using focus groups. A grounded theory approach was used to analyse the transcribed tape recordings. A total of 51 obstetrics and gynaecology residents from teaching hospitals and affiliated general hospitals participated in 7 focus group discussions. Participants discussed how they learn and what factors influence their learning. Results: An underlying theoretical framework emerged from the data, which clarified what happens when residents learn by doing in the clinical workplace. This framework shows that work-related activities are the starting point for learning. The subsequent processes of 'interpretation' and 'construction of meaning' lead to refinement and expansion of residents' knowledge and skills. Interaction plays an important role in the learning process. This is in line with both cognitivist and sociocultural views on learning. Conclusions: The presented theoretical framework of residents' learning provides much needed empirical evidence for the actual learning processes of residents in the clinical workplace. The insights it offers can be used to exploit the full educational potential of the clinical workplace. © 2007 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.