Context: It is widely acknowledged that assessment can affect student learning. In recent years, attention has been called to 'programmatic assessment', which is intended to optimise both learning functions and decision functions at the programme level of assessment, rather than according to individual methods of assessment. Although the concept is attractive, little research into its intended effects on students and their learning has been conducted. Objectives: This study investigated the elements of programmatic assessment that students perceived as supporting or inhibiting learning, and the factors that influenced the active construction of their learning. Methods: The study was conducted in a graduate-entry medical school that implemented programmatic assessment. Thus, all assessment information, feedback and reflective activities were combined into a comprehensive, holistic programme of assessment. We used a qualitative approach and interviewed students (n = 17) in the pre-clinical phase of the programme about their perceptions of programmatic assessment and learning approaches. Data were scrutinised using theory-based thematic analysis. Results: Elements from the comprehensive programme of assessment, such as feedback, portfolios, assessments and assignments, were found to have both supporting and inhibiting effects on learning. These supporting and inhibiting elements influenced students' construction of learning. Findings showed that: (i) students perceived formative assessment as summative; (ii) programmatic assessment was an important trigger for learning, and (iii) the portfolio's reflective activities were appreciated for their generation of knowledge, the lessons drawn from feedback, and the opportunities for follow-up. Some students, however, were less appreciative of reflective activities. For these students, the elements perceived as inhibiting seemed to dominate the learning response. Conclusions: The active participation of learners in their own learning is possible when learning is supported by programmatic assessment. Certain features of the comprehensive programme of assessment were found to influence student learning, and this influence can either support or inhibit students' learning responses.