In this first part of a research project a phenomenological approach was applied to understanding student nurses' experience of preceptorship. The lived experience of seventeen student nurses learning within a preceptor-preceptee relationship on hospital wards formed the basis of the study. Tape-recorded interviews were conducted, transcribed and analysed. The phenomenological hermeneutic analysis revealed three themes of meaning central to the lived experience of learning. These were (a) directing learning; (b) learning in practical action and (c) feeling in learning. The themes included six sub-themes with internal variations. The results indicate that learning, as a phenomenon, could be understood as being in different modes of learning, including directing learning, learning in practical actions and feeling in learning. Each theme was also found to be inherent in the others in an ongoing changeable process. The findings were compared with Aristotle's five modes of learning and revealed that the student nurses' learning embraced scientific knowledge, technical skills, practical wisdom and limited intuition. The study may provide nurse educators with some insight into student nurses' learning by being in real-life situations and performing nursing actions within a preceptor-preceptee relationship.