In Hearing the Important Information, I wrote about taking notes by identifying key words and main ideas in the listening. This tactic essentially breaks whatever you’re listening to down into a simple and (hopefully) well-organized essay outline. It’s a great technique to practice, but it isn’t perfect: it works best for excerpts that are whole and follow a logical introduction-body-conclusion format. Most of the TOEFL excerpts, even the lecture ones, are only a short segment of a lecture, usually from the beginning.
Unlike many school exercises, the sources of the TOEFL questions aren’t necessarily evenly spaced. In other words, there won’t be a question from every sentence or every other sentence of a passage. Because of this, you have to move at the pace of the speaker; you can’t drop out and then jump back in without risking missing something important. This means taking care not only to avoid getting bogged down in what you may have missed, but also not spending too much time predicting what will come next.
What to do if you get lost
At some point, you will probably miss some information that you worry will be central to one (or more) of the questions. Your mind may have wandered, or you were busy trying to figure out a phrase that didn’t quite make sense, or you were guessing what questions you’ll be asked, or you’re just tired.
First of all, let it go. Everyone gets off track sometimes—that’s why even native speakers often don’t make perfect scores on the TOEFL. But it’s way too easy to get caught up in scolding yourself for letting your mind wander, which only compounds the problem. So when you notice that you’ve gotten off track, simply get on track. Be careful not to dwell on how you got off track or let yourself get distracted when you hear something for which you missed the context. The only thing worse than breaking concentration once is breaking concentration more than once.
Now that you’re listening again, put more effort than usual into taking notes and less effort than usual into predicting and synthesizing. If you’ve missed a segment of the lecture, you want to write as much of the information you’re hearing as possible for two reasons: 1) You may not know for sure now what information is most important, and 2) The more information you have, the easier it will be for you to fill in the blanks of what you missed.
When the listening sample is finished, take a little time during the questions to put together the pieces and try to reconstruct the information you missed by looking at your notes. With any luck, you will be able to infer enough information to answer most of the questions without too much difficulty.