Professional placements are integral to social work education and provide formative but variable learning opportunities for students. As social work programs expand and requirements for placements increase, non-traditional settings are increasingly utilized, risking further variability of student experience. This paper reports on qualitative responses to two open-ended questions in a cross sectional survey conducted with social work students from four universities on the island of Ireland. Questions included (1) what students found most helpful in assisting their learning, and (2) what would have improved their learning during placement. Braun and Clarke’s six-step approach to thematic analysis was used to analyse qualitative data from 427 responses to question one, and 355 responses to question two. Four key pillars of practice learning were identified: enabling relationship(s); ‘real world’ practice; structured teaching and learning; and academic-practice alignment. Drawing on these findings the paper presents a framework for integrated learning which promotes students’ capacity for active inquiry in practice. Linked processes of relational knowing and structured teaching and learning emerged as integral to knowledge acquisition and professional development on placement. Findings re-established the significance of the supervisory relationship and relationship-based learning.