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  • Writer's pictureJulia Reeve

Swollage Stories

Updated: Nov 29, 2022

This blog post shares both student and teacher perspectives on the Swollage technique in the form of a conversation.

Hands sticking down collage

Hello again, this post reflects on Swollage: a combination of free-association collage and personal SWOT analysis. It's presented in a question and answer format, with Jemima Duodu providing the learner perspective, and is based around some Swollage sessions recently held with 2nd year Politics, People and Place students at DMU.

Thanks very much to Ros Lishman for inviting me to work with her students, and to Politics communications and engagement assistant Jemima for generously sharing her insights.

What do I mean by Collage?

Collage can be defined as "both the technique and the resulting work of art in which pieces of paper, photographs, fabric and other ephemera are arranged and stuck down onto a supporting surface.”

What do I mean by SWOT analysis?

So what is Swollage?

Swollage is a way of using free-association collage to inform an individual SWOT analysis: it was developed by myself and Kaye Towlson as a means of building skills in self-reflection and fostering self-awareness. This early Writing PAD East Midlands post, SWOT + Collage = ? A self-reflection workshop for 1st Year Medical Science students, describes the origins of the technique.

Originally, the process worked with a personal SWOT analysis that learners had created earlier, but the technique has evolved to allow for more divergent thinking, with the SWOT analysis being created after the collage has been completed.

The basic stages are:

  • Images that learners feel a connection to are torn from supplied paper materials.

  • These are then cut/torn and stuck down onto a large sheet of paper.

  • Collage is annotated with:

Any words suggested by the collage content.

Personal strengths, skills or behaviours suggested by the collage.

  • Collages are shared with peers.

  • Words are used to prompt completion of an individual SWOT analysis, with the main focus being on Strengths and Opportunities.

Diagram showing swollage technique

The Conversation

JD: Jemima Duodu JR: Julia Reeve

JD. What sparked your interest in doing collages for SWOT analysis ?

JR. Swollage, along with other multisensory pedagogic techniques discussed elsewhere in this blog, was developed as an accessible, engaging tool to foster self-reflection, self-awareness and self-efficacy. Initial sessions were successful, and this method has now been used across diciplinary boundaries, as a precursor to, or 'warm-up' for, a written reflective assignment or work placement.

JD. Do you learn something new about yourself with every swollage session you lead ?

JR. Yes, every workshop is a learning experience! The ones you took part in were hybrid, with some students working at home, so I learnt that it was quite difficult to engage these learners as fully. Previously I've delivered swollage sessions online, where the collage is made beforehand and the annotation/discussion done in an online session: this worked well, but I need to give hybrid sessions more thought...

JD. Does every swollage session you lead go as expected ?

JR. No! As with any teaching situation, things don't always go as planned, and no pedagogic approach will suit everyone. For example, in the past a student on the ASD spectrum found the unstructured nature of free-association collage very difficult to engage with: flexibility and sensitivity to learning preferences are always needed.

JD. How do you feel at the end of swollage sessions?

JR. I'm always surprised by the variety of outcomes that students produce, and intrigued by the way that collage can make thoughts, feelings and passions visible.

JD. What do you love most about swollaging?

JR. I love that this multisensory method can ease academic anxieties, provide learners with new insights about themselves and connect people through a visual language.

Swollage step 1 Choosing collage images/text from printed materials
Swollage step 1 Choosing collage images/text from printed materials

JR: Julia Reeve JD: Jemima Duodu

JR. What did you think when you first heard about the Swollage workshop?

JD. I really didn’t know what to expect when I first heard about the swollage workshop. I thought it was just going to be quite a standard session where I help Ros with her teaching and maybe have a chat with some of the students.

JR. Have you been involved in any similar activities before?

JD. I have never been involved in activities that use creativity to explore my strengths and weaknesses. For the majority of my life creativity has been something that is used for expressing my thoughts, ideas and exploring concepts. I have never used it to evaluate my self as a person until the swollage activity.

JR. What were your first impressions of the session?

JD. I was quite shocked when I first participated in the swollage activity because I didn’t expect to learn so much about myself. I was also shocked at how difficult I found the session because we were instructed to not think about the pictures and items we were picking and putting together. I never realised how much I overthink about things until the moment I had to stop thinking about things.

Swollage step 2 Materials cut out and stuck down
Swollage step 2 Materials cut out and stuck down

JR. How did the other students react?

JD. I participated in two swollage sessions and I found that students were really relaxed and open minded in both. They weren’t caught off guard by the activity instead they focused on putting their energy into discovering or exploring more about themselves through collaging. Everyone reacted positively to the idea of swollaging.

JR. Can you describe the process?

JD. The process itself was not over complicated and involved simple steps. All we had to was get a sheet of A3 paper, glue and scissors. Then we had an array of materials to select from to create our swollage; we could select from magazines, newspapers, food wrappers etc. The fundamental element of the swollage process was to not think about the materials you are selecting and just pick them up. I found this part of the process difficult as I naturally started gravitating to things that looked artistic as opposed to being carefree in my selection. Eventually, I picked random things to use in my swollage.

JR. Were you surprised by anything during the session?

JD. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the activity, my first time doing a swollage was online during the pandemic. Doing it online didn’t have the fun of being spontaneous and I also did it alone in my bedroom. However, it was surprisingly much more fun in person being with other students and making the collage in person. I was mostly surprised by the fact that I found a simple task of not over thinking difficult.

Swollage step 3 Annotation added to collage
Swollage step 3 Annotation added to collage

JR. How did the collage inform your SWOT analysis (if at all)?

JD. The observations I got from my collage gave me interesting insights on my SWOT analysis. It reaffirmed that I have a loud personality and that I am very confident. I also found that one of my weaknesses was that I find it hard to stay focused and I juggle too many things at a time. One of the opportunities I noticed was that my personality allows me to speak up for people and this not just exclusive to speaking up about political matters but in their personal lives.

JR. Any observations on the swollages created by other students?

JD. There were two particular students who stood out to me in both sessions. The first student stood out to me because they expressed how they are autistic and prefer activities that are very practical, with clear instructions that lead to a rational conclusion. A creative activity such as swollage can be overwhelming because it’s not as straightforward as writing down your strengths and weaknesses. They approached the activity with complete open mindedness and they in fact created a 3D model instead of a 2D collage and it was insightful seeing their thought process in 3D.

Creating a 3D swollage
Creating a 3D swollage

The second student that stood out to me was a young lady who’s swollage I found particularly artistic. I went over to her to ask if she’d ever studied art and she said she loves art and it’s her passion, but was taking politics. I could instantly tell that this activity gave her the outlet she needed to express herself using her passion.

Art-inspired swollage
Art-inspired swollage

JR. Was the session what you expected?

JD. The session was more than I expected. I assumed that I was just coming in to help with the session and take pictures for the Department's social media accounts but I learnt a lot. I feel like I got to experience what I missed out on during my second year, properly, and I believe this is an activity that all students across different faculties should do to help them understand themselves as individuals.

JR. How did you feel at the end?

JD. At the end I felt like that this was a very insightful and worthwhile experience. I felt like I had a better understanding of my strengths and weaknesses.

JR. Reflections from other students?

JD. From what I observed and heard from students at the end of both sessions, they really enjoyed the swollage activity because of how relaxing it was. Other students really enjoyed taking a break from continuous essay writing and reading.

Swollage step 5: SWOT analysis completed
Swollage step 5: SWOT analysis completed

If you'd like to find out more about collage for learning, see this earlier blog post: Collage for Self-Compassion and also Dr Anna Clare Hunter's work with collage in academic development. Helen Sword has recently run workshops using collage as a prompt for writers in academia: collages from participants are assembled to form a Collage Quilt.

Activating materials in new ways and chanelling this energy into greater self-knowledge is what swollage is all about. Having a break from the textual and cerebral with some multisensory learning can mean that we come back refreshed, engaged and ready to tackle that assignment.

I'll end with a quote from collage artist Nigel Henderson: "I feel happiest among discarded things … fragments cast casually from life, with the fizz of vitality still about them."

See you again soon,


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