Learning behaviour involves such things as beliefs, desires, intentions, expectations, commitment, goals, persistence, volition, self-confidence, emotions and topic difficulty. As far as people are concerned, whatever underpins learning behaviour does not show itself in a simple and straightforward way other than, perhaps, amongst infants. Instead, it is mediated by thoughts and emotions and these have to be taken into account if we are to elicit the kind of motivation that will support understanding. McClelland (1961) argued that we all have more or less of a need to achieve and this
underpins behaviour in situations which call for achievement. Atkinson (1978) hypothesized that there are really two tendencies. The first is a tendency to strive for success so learners appraise a topic for what it has to contribute to that success. The tendency depends on the strength of the success motive and the value and chance of success as perceived by the learner. However, there is also a tendency to avoid failure. This is determined by the strengths of the motive to avoid failure and the disincentive value and probability of failure. Whichever is the greater of these tendencies will determine the behaviour. On this basis, those students with a dominant need to achieve will tend to avoid tasks
where the chance of success is low. But tasks where the chance of success is high tend to be easy and so offer little in the way of achievement. Consequently, we should expect such students to engage in tasks of intermediate difficulty. On the other hand, those dominated by a fear of failure could be expected to attempt lots of easy tasks. They offer little risk and anxiety. But difficult tasks should also be attractive because the outcome is certain and failure in such circumstances is understandable, excusable and not a source of anxiety. These responses have had some confirmation but it is apparent that it is not the full picture.