TOEFL Listening: Taking Notes

The best way I can communicate the importance of note-taking for the exam is to make a  distinction between listening skills and memory ability.  You must understand that it is quite possible for a student to completely understand information at the moment it was spoken and not be able to recall this information when asked about it a mere 3 minutes later.  Is this a case of poor listening skills or poor memory?  I would argue that the problem is a faulty memory and that the ability to take effective notes is the only way to ensure that your listening abilities translate to more correct answers and more complete information on the exam. Thus, if we can establish that success on every part of the exam that has a listening component depends on taking effective notes, let’s look at the different kinds of strategies needed to perform this task, starting with some general comments and recommendations, and then moving on to more specific advice for the academic lectures and conversations in the listening section.

General Strategies

Let’s begin with the idea that neither can you nor should you take notes on everything you hear.  The standard complaint from students is that they can’t take notes and follow the listening at the same time, yet when I watch them take notes, they often try and write everything that is said.  No wonder they have problems!  The listening section of the TOEFL exam does not focus strictly on isolated details.  It will rarely, if ever, ask you what year an event occured.  However, it does focus its questions on a comprehension of the general idea of a passage and the logical development of the ideas in that passage with the focus on determining the type of relationship between the ideas (i.e. cause/effect, steps in a process, problem/proposed solution, conflict/resolution).  When students are able to keep their focus on these features, the task of note-taking becomes both easier and more effective.

This is not to say that there isn’t a tension between listening and note-taking.  Clearly, there is.  But the tension increases significantly when students try to put everything into their notes.  Yet, the rewards for taking notes far outweigh any possble disadvantages.  Still, if you have moment of frustration during the listening and you feel you are losing the thread of the lecture or conversation, stop taking notes until you feel comfortable again, and then start taking notes again, focusing on general concepts and relationships between ideas.  There are more than a few occasions in a listening when a speaker summarizes what has been discussed up to that point.  Pausing in note-taking to maintain focus does not have to mean a missed opportunity.

One piece of advice worth mentioning is to make sure you understand your own notes. Everyone has their own organizatinal system and style, their own abbreviations and short-cuts.  However, if you can’t understand what you have written, there is no point in taking notes in the first place.  Often, poor organization and crazy writing is a result of trying to write too much information, so keep in mind that with notes that fewer and clearer is better than more notes but that you can’t understand.

Another thing that is often overlooked with such a worry about facts and details is that it is important to include emotional information in your notes.  Professors and students can express a wide range of emotions including frustration, worry, satisfaction, confusion, etc…It should not be very difficult to note down these emotions especially if you can abbreviate.  Imagine a professor who angrily rejects a student request to take a new exam after she failed her first one.  Your notes might look like this:

Stud: wants another oppty.

Prof:  No!!

First of all, you should see that this exchange may take between 30 seconds and one minute of conversation as each person justifies his/her point of view.  However, it can be effectively taken down in notes, with the emotional information in a simple and direct way as we see above.

The first task when taking notes is to determine what the listening is about.  Below I will offer more detailed information about how this is done for each type of listening, but it is important to highlight that a student who is able to take notes on detailed information without a clear understanding of how those details relate to the general topic will have difficulties.

Now, let’s look at some more specific ideas for each type of listening.

Academic Lectures

As I wrote above, the key first step is to determine what the topic of the class lecture is about.  This often is mentioned right at the beginning of the lecture when the professor announces both the topic of the day’s class and the organizational structure of the lecture, so be ready and focused from the very beginning.  If you are fortunate, the professor will be direct and thus, the outline for your notes should be strightforward and clear.

Narrator:  «Listen to part of a talk in a Life Science class»

Professor:  » The risks associated with pesticide use, or better said, industrial pesticide use, fall into three categories: environmetal, health and economic…»

You don’t need much imagination to see how your notes should be organized:

Ind. Pesticide Use

1.  Environ.

2.  Health

3.  Econ.

obviously leaving enough space between the categories to comfortably take notes on the ideas presented.  Of course, things are rarely so clear, so let’s take a look at a professor who introduces the topic and the organizational structure in a more roundabout way:

Narrator:  «Listen to part of a business class».

Professor:  «Ok, we’ve talked about some different kinds of management structures and I hope you enjoyed Mary’s presentation on how the functional management structure works in a practical setting, but today I’d like to focus on another more contemporary  manangement structure and discuss both its advantages and disadvantages.  So, I’ll begin our discussion of the project-based management system by asking a question:  «What happens if a company organizes its workers based on specific projects?».

Here, while the professor isn’t as direct as in the previous example, we can determine both the topic and the professor’s organizational system easily, especially if we ignore the distraction of Mary’s presentation of the functional management system.  Thus, the general outline of your notes should look like this:

Proj. Based Mgmt.

1. Adv.

2. Disadv.

again with space enough to comfortably include the information that follows.

The only thing close to a «trick» which you might find in the academic lecture is a class that begins with a long summary of the topic of the previous class, and then makes a transition to the topic and organization of that day’s lecture.  The main thing here is to not fall into the trap of answering the topic of the previous class when asked what the main topic of the class was.


The conversations that are included in the TOEFL listening section often revolve around a problem or conflict that someone (usually a student) is experiencing.  Thus, it is very important that your notes reflect what that problem is, what position each participant in the conversation takes (that is what each person wants) and what the final resolution is. Don’t forget to include emotional information that you notice.

Similar to the academic lectures, the real topic of the conversation can be stated quite directly at the beginning, or it may be revealed after some introductory information is given first, so be ready from the beginning, but don’t be surprised if there is a short delay before the situation becomes clear.

In terms of note-taking format, my students have had success by using a simple cross-style in which they divide the page into two columns, one column for each speaker, and then representing the flow of the conversation with arrows or just writing the next part of the conversation at a slightly lower point in the column.  See this example:

Student                                                                                                                                               Professor

 Failed exam. Wants other oppty.                                                                                     


 Options? (frustrated)                                                                                                         


-Possible extra-credit project

Interested in project.  Details?                                                                                         

Interview w/ local expert

10 pg. paper

15 min. class presentation

Yes. Enthusiastic                              

Notice how a 3-minute conversation can be effeciantly and effectively reduced to its main points with all of the relevant information (problem, each person’s position, emotions and resolution) included.

One final comment.  Practice makes perfect, and effective note-taking requires a lot of practice.  Therefore, to connect this week’s topic to the last blog article , it would be excellent practice to take notes while listening to the radio reports mentioned in my last blog entry.