Designing Inclusive Writing Assignments

When polled about what makes a writing assignment meaningful, students appreciate the opportunity to immerse themselves in activities to which they feel a personal connection and that seem to have a practical connection to their future selves. With this in mind, instructors benefit from considering the diverse identities of students in the classroom as they relate to the purposes of their writing tasks and the audiences to whom they will communicate. Making thoughtful choices about language use can help establish your class as one where all students can learn and succeed.

While there are many valuable sources for advice on equitable teaching practices, this page focuses on writing activities as meaningful sites for learning and assessment.

Some principles for keeping inclusivity in mind

Design assignments for maximum transparency. All students benefit from clear expectations and guidelines for assessment. For experts, it can be challenging to remember what aspects of their disciplinary work are “common knowledge” for lay audiences. Asking students to explain their understanding of the assignment and its requirements can help the instructor recognize if any unspoken understanding, assumed experience, or technical language has been taken for granted in an assignment description.

Design tasks that offer equitable opportunities for participation. If a student’s circumstances make performing a task challenging and would require an accommodation, consider making the “accessible option” available for all students. For example, if any student requires an audio format for course materials, allow all students to access audio versions of course texts. Similarly, if an assignment’s constraints may disadvantage a student (i.e., in-class timed writing exercises), consider eliminating the restrictions or constraints (by making all in-class writing assignments available ahead of class time).

Provide students with opportunities to consider themselves in specific relationships to your topics. While some assignments may require students to assume certain disciplinary expectations or registers (e.g., non-participant observation or third person language), consider providing students with opportunities to think about, reflect upon, and perhaps challenge those expectations. Especially in contexts where students imagine themselves as future professionals or participants in the discipline, invite students to consider how their lives, unique experiences, and identities will shape their future professional identities.

students in a computer lab working with each other learning to code.

Give students opportunities to choose what they wish to disclose about themselves. While some assignments may demand students consider themselves and their relationships to others, allow students to make decisions about what they are willing to self-disclose. For some students, especially those who may be still processing negative experiences or traumas, assignments that make assumptions about common experiences can be troublesome. For example, assignments that ask students to describe their home environments or discuss family or intimate relationships may be troublesome for students or produce stereotype threat. In some courses, these assignments are appropriate to the instructional context, but you can assist students by providing options that don’t require self-disclosure. For example, rather than asking students to describe the contents of their bedrooms, allow students to describe features of an ideal dorm room.

Recommended practices for inclusive language in assignments

When instructors design their assignments and activities with inclusive language in mind, the potential benefits of those choices extend to all members of a classroom community. Using inclusive language is less about “watching what you say” and more about being thoughtful about your audience and their relationship to the classroom environment. 

  • Use language that reflects how individuals and people refer to themselves. For people in the classroom, this can be facilitated by self-introduction. For authors and examples, attend to how authors refer to themselves. 
  • Use “person-centered” language as a general rule.
  • Be intentional about representing diversity in examples, case studies, and course materials.
  • Be intentional in the ways you discuss or represent the experiences of collectives and people. Remember that cultures and races are not monolithic.
  • Recognize diverse communities of origin and families of origin.
  • Use language that does not assume a particular educational or personal experience.
  • Use language that does not assume a certain level of financial means or a particular vocation.
  • Use words that encompass all genders rather than only two.

For example, “people of all genders” instead of “women and men”; “children” instead of “boys and girls”; “siblings” instead of “brothers and sisters.”

  • Understand and respect the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity.
  • Use language that does not assume all people are heterosexual.
  • Avoid negative or demeaning language for people with disabilities.

For example, use “people living with HIV/AIDS” rather than “AIDS victims”; use “people who use wheelchairs” rather than “wheelchair-bound” or “someone confined to a wheelchair.”

  • Be thoughtful about the imagery you use and your selection of metaphors and idioms.