Background: Hospital clerkships are considered crucial for acquiring competencies such as diagnostic reasoning and clinical skills. The actual learning process in the hospital remains poorly understood. This study investigates how students learn clinical skills in workplaces and factors affecting this. Methods: Six focus group sessions with 32 students in Internal Medicine rotation (4-9 students per group; sessions 80-90 minutes). Verbatim transcripts were analysed by emerging themes and coded independently by three researchers followed by constant comparison and axial coding. Results: Students report to learn the systematics of the physical examination, gain agility and become able to recognise pathological signs. The learning process combines working alongside others and working independently with increasing responsibility for patient care. Helpful behaviour includes making findings explicit through patient files or during observation, feedback by abnormal findings and taking initiative. Factors affecting the process negatively include lack of supervision, uncertainty about tasks and expectations, and social context such as hierarchy of learners and perceived learning environment. Conclusion: Although individual student experiences vary greatly between different hospitals, it seems that proactivity and participation are central drivers for learning. These results can improve the quality of existing programmes and help design new ways to learn physical examination skills.