How To Improve Your Notes for a Better TOEFL Listening Score
Why Listening Matters-- And Why It Is So Hard To Listen, Especially in a Foreign Language
There's a lot of advice out there on how to be a better listener, even for native speakers. While one can find articles for how to be an active or empathetic listener, which offer techniques and cultural expectations that can greatly enhance your daily interactions, these strategies are often not taught in formal classroom settings and do not always take into account the additional struggles faced by non-native speakers. According to BBC's Learning English, listening is the skill that occupies most of our time, making up 45% of communication for adults. Yet, it continues to be a frequently overlooked skill.
In his Ted Talk full of tips for making you a more attuned listener in any language, listening expert Julian Treasure bemoans the lack of formal listening instruction in schools. In this way, foreign language students are at an advantage as this is a skill that is practiced while in the second language classroom. However, how many people are actually given instruction on how to do it properly rather than just having an instructor read off the answers to the questions? When the topics become more complex and the language more academic, like that on the TOEFL and in university classes, listening becomes nearly synonymous with note-taking. Below, learn 5 strategies for successful listening and proper note-taking
5 Essential Strategies for Better TOEFL Listening and University Note-Taking
1| Set up your notes for the type of listening passage given
When listening to a conversation, divide your paper into 2 columns, one for each speaker. This will help you keep your notes organized, making it easier to find the answers to the questions when you are working under serious time constraints on test day.
When working with any listening that has more than one speaker, often the other person responds by voicing their agreement, approval or support; their confusing or lack of clarity; or their disapproval or disagreement. Remember to pay attention to both content and tone. As soon as someone replies with a strong positive or negative, use a quick symbol to record this. I recommend using a check mark or a minus symbol before taking note on the other information in the reply.
When it comes to lectures, there are three major types you could encounter the day of the test. You can either here a lecture where only the professor speaks, a lecture with student interactions, or a seminar-style class.
A seminar-style course is not very likely, but if the professor informs or reminds listeners that this is the structure, be prepared to hear multiple speakers and have the professor simply guide the students rather than give the majority of the information.
Treat lectures with student interaction similarly to conversations, noting in particular how the professor responds, affirmatively or not, to student supplied answers. Let questions from the professor or the students guide your note-taking. These questions can act as subtopics, helping again to locate the information from your notes quickly when the time comes.
The most difficult type of lecture to take notes on are those that only have one speaker. The professor will often introduce the main topic in the first few sentences. Be sure to take notes on lists (as those easily convert to multiple choice questions), definitions, and subcategories.
2| Don't attempt to take notes on everything someone says
On the TOEFL, you can and should take notes, but you only have the ability to note take on scrap paper. Most people can type faster than they can handwrite notes, and, as a result, your strategy must adjust accordingly.
Strong listening really boils down to the ability to differentiate between what matters and what doesn't. Consider, if the lecture were given in your native language, what would you identify as important. The content of what is important does not change.
Even if you were able to write down every word when you are actually attending lectures in the university program you wish to attend, you would not want to do that. First, you would not actually be processing what the professor says and you wouldn't want to review the dictation you had taken in order to prepare for your midterm or final. Second, you would not be truly processing the information that is incoming. Even if you could do that on the TOEFL, remember, right answers tend to use paraphrases rather than the same exact language from the lecture.
Read more: 9 Podcasts To Listen to for TOEFL Prep
3| Anticipate the questions
No matter what section you are preparing for, you always want to make sure that you predicting the questions that will come up. Thinking like the test-makers instead of the test-taker is one of the most important mental shifts one can make for more successful test taking.
Questions on the TOEFL listening fall into several common categories, and your notes should reflect each style of question. Detail questions, like those found on the Reading section, are quite common. Look out for lists of 3 in order to prepare for detail and negative detail questions. Those detail questions could also take the form of charts rather than simple multiple choice, especially if there are more or less than 3 items that fit a particular criterion the professor has outlined. The Listening is more concerned with structure, function, and attitude than the Reading section, so be sure that your notes reflect this as well. While frequently a small snippet of the recording will be played again for those types of questions, by taking note on the attitude the first time, you can use the replay to confirm what you already know.
4| Keep in mind the natural stress patterns in English
Remember, English is a stressed timed language. This means that stress normally occurs at regular intervals rather than on each and every syllable in every word. This is why the subject, verb, and object--known as content words-- receive more stress and are as a result easier to catch than the other function words. The good news is, the content words tend to be the ones that questions will be asked about.
When the usual stress pattern is broken, note it. If the stress has been placed on a word that isn't expected, the entire meaning and tone of the sentence has likely shifted.
5| Take the hint
Some phrases are the equivalent of the speaker telling you to take notes. This isn't just an artificial, contrived component of the exam. Instructors frequently will set expectations or encourage students to pay particularly close attention to a subject. The professor might actually provide gentle reminders, make recommendations on how to prepare or what to review or to take note on. These may become speaker's purpose, function, or even detail questions on the test.
Rhetorical techniques like repetition are another way that the instructor is trying to highlight a given point. If the instructor is saying the same word or phrase (or a synonym for it) again and again, this will almost certainly come up on the exam. This is almost always how detail questions get developed.
Being familiar with casual phrases utilized in speech and their respective purposes will help you make the most of these clues. Grab the 2 page TOEFL Listening Phrases At a Glance to printable to become familiar with more than 30+ phrases you'll want to know for TOEFL lectures and university level classes.
Having a set system for note-taking based on the types of questions you anticipate will come up will help make you better prepared for the TOEFL now and for midterms and finals down the road. Prioritize content, note tone when multiple speakers are involved, and look for common phrases that set expectations to improve your listening comprehension.
What is the hardest thing about the TOEFL listening section in your opinion? Leave your thoughts in a comment below.