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TOEFL Lecture Strategy: Take Notes

Announcement! As of August 1, 2019, the TOEFL Reading, Listening and Speaking sections will be shortened. The TOEFL will also make changes to its prep materials and scoring system. Because of this, some of the info in our blog posts may not yet reflect the new exam format. We cover all the changes here.

When you’re listening to a lecture, you need to remember different information and listen differently than you do for a conversation. Lectures tend to be much longer, and the details tend to be denser. Also, a lecture often deals with several topics or key points, whereas a conversation will generally be shorter and confined to one or two topics. Here are some tips for doing your best on the lecture-based listening questions.


Some information should be unknown

Conversations usually deal with information that is fairly familiar to the speakers. Lectures are a little different: the professor is teaching, so of course s/he will use words and discuss concepts that are unfamiliar not only to you, but to the (imaginary) students s/he’s lecturing to. So if you get confused, relax and look for ways that the professor may be explaining those new words and ideas. If s/he defines a key concept and you miss the definition, don’t worry too much. The professor will probably give some examples to clarify his or her point. Listen for clarifications given after the new, unknown words or phrases


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Keep the structure

Sometimes, you will need to answer questions about on the overall structure of a lecture. Try to preserve the original structure of the lecture in your notes so that you don’t get stuck when an organization question comes up. Yes, you may skip around (as some lecturers inevitably will) to place details and examples under the appropriate heading, but make an effort to at least write the headings in the same order that the professor mentions them.


Don’t write every word

You might have a TOEFL preparation book that shows example notes including almost every single detail in the lectures. If you do, don’t worry—that’s not necessary. Many  authors include unrealistic notes in their TOEFL books. I don’t know why this is, exactly. Sometimes the other advice is all very good, but the notes set impossible expectations. Your notes should be just enough that you can both listen and remember. If you are having a hard time listening because you are writing, then you need to take fewer notes. If you are having a hard time remembering things that you know you heard, then you need to take more notes. Finding the balance takes time, and the exact amount of notes that’s best is different for different people.


Practice, practice, practice

If you live near an English-speaking university, ask at the office of admissions and see if you can sit in on a lecture or two, so you can practice taking notes in real time. If you can’t or don’t want to do that, visit your local library or check out open courses like those found at iTunes U and for virtually unlimited note-taking practice. You can check the thoroughness of your notes by re-listening to the lecture and writing sets of practice questions for yourself. As a bonus, this will be great for your academic vocabulary!


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