The General Medical Council in the UK recommends that undergraduate medical students be exposed to a variety of learning opportunities and increasingly take responsibility for their own learning. This study presents quantitative and qualitative data relating to attendance at non-compulsory plenary lectures in order to understand factors affecting the value placed by students on this component of the first 2 years of a contemporary medical curriculum. Attendance data were available for 87% first year and 78% second year plenary lectures. There was no difference in attendance at lectures that were delivered telematically to a remote site when compared with those where the speaker was present. There were markedly more students attending lectures at the beginning of the first academic year, with numbers decreasing as the year progressed. More first year students attended lectures on biomedical science and clinically focussed topics than on human science and public health whereas second year student attendance was similar across topics. Reasons given for non-attendance at plenary sessions fell into "student-related" factors (e.g. dislike of lecture-based learning) and "teaching-related" factors (e.g. perceived variable quality of lectures). This study confirms that some students value lectures highly as a method to supplement other learning opportunities, whereas others find they learn better by other means.