A previous qualitative study [Nurse Education Today 20 (2000) 499] investigated perceptions of nurse teachers, student nurses and preceptors of the theory–practice gap said to exist within nursing. One theme was views of how the theory–practice gap could be closed. A subsequent quantitative study is reported here, in which this theme was translated into three factors. A full factorial experimental design was used to study the effect of these factors on theoretical knowledge and practical skill acquisition in a sample of first year undergraduate student nurses from one institution of higher education (). The effect of whether a nurse teacher or preceptor taught students theoretical elements relating to a clinical speciality, whether the nurse teacher and preceptor collaborated on the content of what was taught to students and whether students went straight to, or delayed the clinical speciality following theoretical input, was examined. The results demonstrated preceptors were more effective than nurse teachers in promoting theoretical knowledge relating to their clinical speciality. Collaboration between the preceptors and nurse teachers on teaching content was ineffective at increasing theoretical knowledge. Delay between theoretical input and clinical experience was not detrimental for medical placements and for rehabilitation placements, resulted in an improved theoretical knowledge.