Homework assignments that include interaction with family members improve family involvement

iStock_000006354717XSmallMiddle-school students participated in a study of interactive science homework for 18 weeks. Frances L. Van Voorhis, Johns Hopkins University, developed science homework assignments that require students to work with their parents or other family members. Students in the experimental classes completed more assignments and turned in more accurate assignments than did students in noninteractive classrooms. Study findings also reveal that this greater parental involvement led to higher grades and better attitudes toward science.

Previous research shows that middle and high school students achieve better grades and achievement scores when they spend more time on homework and complete more assignments. Despite this link between homework and achievement, many students do not complete their homework, and students, parents and teachers voice legitimate concerns over current homework practices. Teachers want more communication with parents, but parents complain that teachers give them too little information on how to help their children with homework. Seventy-five percent of middle school principals surveyed report that fewer than half of the parents at their schools receive regular information from teachers regarding ways in which they might help their children with homework. This suggests, according to Van Voorhis, that a need might exist for improved communication between school and home about parental help with homework.

Past studies reveal both positive and negative effects of parent involvement in homework. Parents express frustration and embarrassment when they try to help their children with homework, saying they feel they don’t have the necessary knowledge or work differently than the teacher. However, parental involvement has a more positive impact on achievement than socioeconomic status. Generally, parents are less involved in homework as their children progress through high school. But secondary students need different kinds of parental involvement. Studies have shown that discussion of school activities at home has the most positive effect of all the types of parental involvement.

Teachers Involve Parents in Schoolwork (TIPS)

On the basis of these findings, researchers have developed a homework approach to promote student learning, parent-child interactions and parent- teacher communication. This design for interactive homework can be applied to any subject at any grade level. Each assignment includes clear objectives for learning, instructions for completion, and explicit instructions to the student for involving family members in certain portions of the assignment. Interactive assignments are assigned no more than once per week. Students are given several days to complete the activity, and certain sections of the activity include instructions to prompt students to involve family members with specific conversation. Parents are asked for feedback on the effectiveness of the activity.

Teachers use interactive assignments when interaction would increase students’ comprehension. Teachers design interactive questions that parents can answer without formal education or detailed knowledge of the subject. The assignments focus on what the student is learning, not on what the parent knows.


Two previous studies have been carried out on the effectiveness of interactive homework on students’ learning. A year-long study with middle-school students in an inner-city public school indicated that the number of TIPS writing assignments completed was related positively to students’ grades in language arts and the overall quality of their writing skills. A two-month study of sixth-grade students’ mathematics homework found no significant differences in mathematics achievement between classes that used interactive assignments and those assigned traditional homework.

In the current study, Van Voorhis studied 10 classes of suburban students and their parents for two grading periods. A total of 253 sixth and eighth graders participated in low, average and honors science classes. Fifty-three percent of the students were white, 36 percent were African American and 11 percent were from other ethnic groups. All teachers in the study were encouraged to use science activities that promoted discovery and hands-on experiences that motivated students.

Van Voorhis compared the effects of completing TIPS homework assignments with non-interactive homework assignments. Six classes were assigned TIPS homework and four received traditional assignments. Van Voorhis collaborated with teachers to develop TIPS science assignments to match their curriculum for the first two marking periods. Teachers chose topics for weekly assignments and designed two test questions related to each homework assignment.

All TIPS science activities included eight components:

  1. A letter to the parents explaining the assignment in one sentence
  2. The objective or learning goal of the activity
  3. Common, inexpensive household materials or materials provided by the teacher
  4. A step-by-step procedure that requires the student to think and act like a scientist and to interact with a family member
  5. A lab report or data chart for reporting findings
  6. Conclusion/discussion of the results and realworld applications of science with a family member
  7. A section on the report for family members to send observations, comments or questions to the teacher
  8. A parent signature on each activity sheet

Noninteractive assignments included the same homework content and format but did not include the instructions for family involvement. At the end of the study, parents of students in all the classes were asked to complete a survey of their opinions of science homework.

Prior science achievement, mother’s education level, student ability level, student race, gender and grade level were collected for each student in the study. Homework completion, homework accuracy, family involvement, time on homework, science achievement, and attitudes about homework and science were recorded. Achievement was measured by the percentage of homework-related test questions answered correctly and report-card grades. Van Voorhis sought to identify the effects of interactive and noninteractive homework on family involvement in homework, homework completion rates, homework accuracy and science achievement.


TIPS encouraged significantly more family involvement in science homework. Higher levels of family involvement did not carry over to other subjects, however. The TIPS assignments provided instructions so parents did not have to figure out how to help their child appropriately. When family members were involved, students completed more assignments and assignments were more accurate than students with non-interactive assignments. TIPS students also earned higher report card grades. This remained true even after controlling for student background characteristics such as prior science achievement. Van Voorhis suggests that these students may have gained knowledge by explaining and talking about their work in a systematic way with a family member.

Recommendations and conclusions

Van Voorhis recommends year-long studies and the use of standardized tests to determine if interactive assignments raise students’ scores on these tests as well as report card grades. On the basis of this study, however, Van Voorhis concludes that students benefit from well-designed interactive homework. Designing the interactive assignments in this study took time and teamwork. Teachers worked during the summer to write homework assignments. Teachers noted the benefits of having time to collaborate and strengthen their understanding of class content by explaining it to others. They reported the lack of time to do this during the school year. The type of interactive homework that produced positive results in achievement and family involvement invites students to engage a family partner in an activity, experiment, discussion or interview. Such productive assignments are currently underused.

“Interactive Homework in Middle School: Effects on Family Involvement and Science Achievement”, The Journal of Educational Research, Volume 96, Number 6, August 2003, pp. 322-338.

Published in ERN October 2003 Volume 16 Number 7

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