Background Timely recognition and referral of patients with spondyloarthritis (SpA) is challenging due to the frequent unawareness of the clinical picture. Aim To identify clinical assessment patterns of GPs and GP-residents when facing a patient suspected of having SpA, and to determine which components of clinical assessment were most prevalent prior to referral to the rheumatologist and whether targeted education could positively influence pattern recognition. Design & setting Prospective multicentre educational intervention study in primary care practices in the Netherlands. Method GPs and GP-residents were visited in two rounds by standardised patients (SPs) simulating axial or peripheral SpA (dactylitis). Between these rounds, an educational intervention regarding SpA took place for part of the participants. SPs completed a case-specific checklist inquiring about disease-related items and items on physical examination. Results Sixty-eight participants (30 GPs and 38 GP-residents) were included and 19 (28%) received the educational intervention. In round 1, about half of the participants asked at least one question to differentiate between an inflammatory or mechanical origin of the back pain or peripheral complaint; on average, <15% asked for extra-articular manifestations. After education, GP-residents inquired more about the presence of extra-articular manifestations and family history of axial SpA; this pattern was also observed in the GPs and GP-residents who correctly referred the SP. In the peripheral SpA case, the observed gain was less evident when compared to the axial SpA case. Conclusion Pattern recognition of patients suspected for SpA by GP(-residents) is essential for referral to a rheumatologist and can be improved by education.