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TOEFL Listening Time: Pacing and Note-Taking Strategies

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.

headphones nestling retro alarm clock flat on wooden surface representing TOEFL listening time

Editor’s note: Kate Hardin contributed signifcantly to this post.

Pacing is very important in TOEFL Listening. Today, we’ll take a closer look at the TOEFL Listening time breakdown, the suggested TOEFL Listening time per question, and the pacing and note-taking strategies that will help you make the most of TOEFL Listening time.

Table of Contents

TOEFL Listening Section Time: A Breakdown
TOEFL Listening Section Time Per Question
TOEFL Listening Pacing Strategies
TOEFL Listening Note-Taking Strategies
Making the Most of TOEFL Listening Time After Losing Focus

TOEFL Listening Section Time: A Breakdown

The total TOEFL Listening section time is 41 minutes, with time allocated for the lecture and audio tracks, instructions, and answering questions. Here’s the breakdown:

  • Time for Lecture and Audio Tracks: 21 minutes
  • Time for Answering Questions: 16.5 minutes
  • Time for Instructions: 3.5 minutes

In other words, you get about 24.5 minutes to listen to the three lectures, two conversations, and various sets of instructions. Then you get roughly 16.5 minutes to listen to 28 questions.

Note that these 16.5 minutes is the only time you’ll actually see the TOEFL clock ticking down on your exam screen. What does this mean for the time per question on the TOEFL Listening section? Read the section below for a more detailed look at how you should pace yourself as you answer TOEFL Listening questions.

TOEFL Listening Section Time Per Question

As I mentioned above, expect roughly 16.5 minutes to complete the combined number of questions for the five recordings in the TOEFL Listening Section. That’s 16.5 minutes for 28 questions, or about 35 seconds per question.

But because you can’t go back and listen again, unlike the Reading section, which allows you to re-read the passage, you have the option to answer your TOEFL Listening questions quickly. Most students only take 10-20 seconds per question, and that’s the timing you should ideally aim for. By learning to quickly consult your notes, you should be able to avoid running out of TOEFL Listening time on test day. (We’ll talk more about this in the note-taking strategies section).

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Also always remember that once you’ve submitted an answer, you can’t go back to it as you can in the Reading section. That means there’s no strategy of answering some questions before others, and skipping will always hurt your score. Answer every question in the order you see it, even if you have to guess.

TOEFL Listening Pacing Strategies

The challenge with TOEFL Listening practice materials is that they do not perfectly emulate the real test-day experience, which makes it difficult to perfect your TOEFL Listening pacing. But by understanding the differences and following the below tips, you can make sure you’re making the most of your TOEFL Listening time.

Practice Listening to Audio One Time Through

You need to brace yourself to stay as attentive as possible because you can’t pause, rewind, replay, or slow down the speed of an audio track on the real test, even though you can do these things in TOEFL Listening Practice. Your goal during practice should be to reach a point where you aren’t dependent on practice-only features. Listening to a TOEFL lecture or conversation one time through and answering the questions well is an important mark of success in managing your TOEFL Listening time.

Ideally, you’ll pay attention perfectly for the duration of the test, understand all of the main ideas the first time they’re mentioned, and understand the context of every recording. But practically speaking, this may not be possible. If you miss some information, how do you ensure the highest possible score? We’ll look at that in the section on making the most of your TOEFL Listening time after losing focus.

Be Wary of the Practice TOEFL Listening Timer

As I mentioned earlier, the timer you see on the exam screen only ticks when you’re answering questions. The TOEFL Listening clock does not run while the lectures or conversations are playing. The TOEFL Listening clock also does not run during the instructions that come at the beginning of the section and come at the beginning of each question set.

This means that the TOEFL Listening clock also comes to a halt during the question sets if any sort of audio is played. Whenever a small part of the lecture audio is replayed before a question, the clock stops. The timer also stops momentarily for the brief spoken audio instructions that come before every single question.

This ETS-based timer software is very difficult to duplicate. As a result, most of the TOEFL practice materials out there—including Magoosh and even the ETS official guides—have a time that starts at 41 minutes and ticks throughout your practice section. For this reason, it’s so important to make sure you’re listening to the audio no more than once and that you practice keeping your TOEFL Listening time per question no more than 35 seconds per question. And in fact, 10-20 seconds is even better; it’s a pace that most students are able to reach, and it ensures you won’t risk running out of time on the Listening .

TOEFL Listening Note-Taking Strategies

There are a couple of ways in which your strategy on the Listening section will be different from that of the Reading section. First of all, of course, you can’t go back to the recording as you answer the questions. That’s why note-taking during TOEFL Listening is such a powerful tool.

However, it can also be a double-edged sword when it comes to managing TOEFL Listening time. So it’s important to develop good note-taking habits.

When you take notes, make sure you take just enough notes to remember the key points in the lecture or conversation. If you take too many notes, you can actually find yourself frantically focusing on writing all the words down, to the point where you lose focus on what the lecture actually means. And needless to say, you should only work on your notes while the lectures and conversations are playing. Never let note-taking time cut into your TOEFL Listening time to answer questions.

Ultimately, good note-taking is integral to good pacing during your TOEFL Listening. So be sure to check out Magoosh’s TOEFL note-taking tutorials. Here are five of the most essential ones:

Making the Most of TOEFL Listening Time After Losing Focus

At some point, you will probably miss some information that might 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. The Listening section is fast-paced, so this is an almost inevitable mistake test-takers make in managing their TOEFL Listening time. What should you do, and how can you make sure you don’t fall so far behind that you cut into your TOEFL Listening time to answer questions?

First, Let it Go

The rhyme I have my students remember when they miss something they heard during their TOEFL Listening time is “It’s gone; move on.”

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 back 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.

Second, Refocus on Note-taking

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 key information you’re hearing as possible for two reasons:

  • You may not know for sure now what information is most important, and
  • The more information you have, the easier it will be for you to fill in the blanks of what you missed.

When the Listening track 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. Your notes really can save you, and they’re important even when you’re not falling behind in TOEFL Listening pacing.

TOEFL Listening Time and Pacing: The Takeaway

About half of your success in TOEFL Listening pacing relies on knowing the facts about the TOEFL Listening section: how the timer ticks during TOEFL Listening time, how much time per question you have on TOEFL Listening, and so on.

However, the other half is focus: your ability to focus on the audio tracks while also devoting some attention to your notes. Maintain this good balance of knowledge, focus, and note-taking, and you can conquer this section in time for test day.

And remember to practice, practice, practice! You can go through a partial TOEFL Listening section in our Meet the TOEFL Listening Section post.

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17 Responses to TOEFL Listening Time: Pacing and Note-Taking Strategies

  1. Raghav October 12, 2016 at 10:02 pm #

    Hi Kate,

    I have a query regarding TOEFL listening section, while answering the final question of the listening section I was able to mark the answer but before confirming the answer I ran out of time.

    So will that question be graded as answered , or unanswered?

    Please help out, Thanks in advance

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert October 15, 2016 at 11:20 am #

      Hi Raghav,

      That final answer, if selected, should be marked as answered. 🙂

  2. Divya Dharshini November 26, 2016 at 4:55 am #

    I have a query reagarding the listening section. As stated , the listening section may be a simple or an extended version. So when the audios whether 6 or 9 of them are played should i listen to each of the audio and take notes ? If so when should i answer the question? Will it be like first the audio will be played after which there will be a question on each of the pages following it ?

    please do the needful.

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert November 29, 2016 at 10:19 am #

      It’s always a good idea to take some notes during the TOEFL Listening audio tracks of course. But no matter how many audio tracks you get, you’ll always see a set of questions immediately after the associated audio track. You won’t listen to 2 or more audio tracks back-to-back, and then get to a series of questions for more than one track. Does this make sense?

  3. Seun A. December 8, 2016 at 4:08 am #

    During my study for toefl, I realized it wasn’t necessary for me to take notes, once I begin to take notes, I begin to lose focus. As strange as it might sound, I’ve done better not taking notes than taking notes. I’ll rather take notes if the speech/conversation is a really long one. When I’m not distracted I’m able to grasp everything needed. So, i think it’s best to know what works for you before the test day.

  4. Polly March 7, 2017 at 9:43 am #

    I am having my TOEFL test in a couple of days and the timing of the Listening is the last thing I still don’t understand.

    The short version:

    If we have 60 minutes for 4 lectures and 2 conversations, it means we have 10 minutes per questionnaire. As I understand from the article, the audios are not included in that time.
    According to my math teacher, we would have more than just 30 seconds per answer.

    I am confused. Somebody please help me.
    I really need to know how to structure the time in the Listening part.

    • David Recine
      David Recine March 8, 2017 at 7:45 am #

      The timing on the TOEFL Listening section can be confusing. To clarify, the audio recordings do contribute to the total 60 minutes for the whole Listening section. In other words, the TOEFL clock is running when the audio plays.

      However, you can’t fast-forward through the audio. Since you have no control about the speed of the audio, the audio shouldn’t be included in your pacing time. For pacing, you just focus on the minutes where you’re answering questions, not the minutes where you listen to audio.

      In total, you have about 20 minutes of time to answer the 34 questions in TOEFL Listening. 20 minutes is 1200 seconds. 1200/34 = 35.29, or roughly 35 seconds per questions.

      It’s understandable to get a little confused about this. I hope the numbers above help you to picture the structure of Listening more clearly. Having said that, the best way to really understand TOEFL Listening is to experience it firsthand. I recommend doing a full TOEFL Listening section, either through TOEFL Quick Prep, TOEFL Practice Online, one of the official TOEFL books (OG, or Official Tests Vol. 1 or 2), or Magoosh TOEFL. Once you actually take a good Listening practice test, you’ll have a much better idea of how this section works.

  5. Anil May 6, 2017 at 5:05 am #

    what happens if we miss to answer a single complete listening passage in toefl? I missed to a single lecture on listening..could not solve the whole questions for a signle lecture ,how much marks will it reduce as a whole

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert May 6, 2017 at 12:06 pm #

      Hi Anil,

      It’s difficult to answer this question, since the TOEFL listening section doesn’t have a set number of points. Using this blog post, I can do a rough estimate of what effect this would have on your score. If you miss an entire lecture, that means that you missed 6 questions/points (assuming they are all 1-point questions). If there are 47 total points in that listening section (estimated from Quick Prep) and you miss 6 points, your score drops to around 26. So, if you miss an entire listening section, this is an estimate of your highest possible score.

      As I said, we can’t know this with certainty because of how the listening section is scored and set up, but you could expect that missing an entire lecture would lower your score by 4-5 points.

  6. Lucas May 7, 2017 at 7:00 am #

    Hi. I have a question: We are able to read the questions before listening the audio or only after listening? I can imagine being more a memory test rather than english. Thank you

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert May 8, 2017 at 3:33 am #

      Good question! 🙂 The audio comes before the questions sometimes, but if you are being asked about a very specific part, a clip of the audio will be available to listen to again.

  7. Shradha Jaiswal August 12, 2018 at 2:18 am #


    I’m a current Magoosh user for GRE.
    I’m aspiring to take TOEFL
    I’ve read that there are 10 minutes for 17 questions for each set of three recordings .
    But in total as far as I know there 6 lecture 3 conversation ,then how it can be just 3
    Please clarify

    • David Recine
      David Recine August 16, 2018 at 12:34 pm #

      Hi Shradha. I hope our GRE service has been helpful! 🙂 And I’ll be happy to help you clear up the 6 vs. 3 question in TOEFL Listening. Basically, there are three types of TOEFL Listening passages: conversations, lectures where only the professor talks, and class discussions where the professor is talking, but students also talk. The TOEFL Listening section consists of 2 sets of 3: one set containing a conversation, lecture, and class discussion, and then a second set containing a second conversation, second lecture, and second class discussion. So there are three recordings in each half– or “pod” of the TOEFL Listening section.

      Does that make sense? Certainly let me know if you have any other questions, Shradha.

  8. Kate February 19, 2019 at 7:38 am #

    Hello! Is it possible to answer only half of the questions or two thirds. Lets say you spend a little more time with each question in the beginning but completely missed the last 5 questions. Or just randomly answered them. Thanks!

    • David Recine
      David Recine February 19, 2019 at 1:26 pm #

      It’s possible to run out of time so that you miss the final questions or have to guess on them, yes. If that happens, it’s better to guess than simply miss the questions If you can click to the final questions quickly enough to guess, there will be at least a chance that your guesses are correct. But skipped questions are simply wrong.

      Ideally, though, of course, you’ll want to carefully practice your TOEFL Listening pacing so that you don’t run out of time like that!

  9. Sravya June 27, 2019 at 4:13 pm #


    I have a question:

    Can we pause the audio while listening ?


    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert June 28, 2019 at 2:09 pm #

      Hi Sravya,

      The TOEFL exam does not allow you to pause the audio while you are listening.

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