How To Improve Your Notes for a Better TOEFL Listening Score

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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   

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

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.

              Read more: 3 Qualities of Strong Notes for University and TOEFL Success

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.

Key Takeaways

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.


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What is the hardest thing about the TOEFL listening section in your opinion?  Leave your thoughts in a comment below.

From Podcasts to Points: 9 Podcasts to Listen to for TOEFL Prep

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9 Podcasts You Need to Listen To When Preparing for the TOEFL

In the United States, nearly 1/4 Americans listened to a podcast within the last month, according to a report from the Pew Research Foundation, a figure that is climbing year after year.  Podcasts are becoming a way of life for many individuals, but they also present a great opportunity for language learners.  Podcasts can be a great TOEFL prep tool because their format lends themselves to test prep and as the podcast listenership increases, so do the amount of quality shows being offered.

Why Podcasts

The most obvious reason why podcasts are a great fit for TOEFL prep is that the format is most similar to what you listen to on test day itself.  While watching television, documentaries, or Ted Talks can offer good practice, their visual nature might mean that you are not truly getting the true note-taking experience that you should need for something like the TOEFL.  With few visual clues on test day, you need to rely on what you can hear only.  Podcasts come in this format to begin with, but many will include show notes or transcripts that you can use to check against the notes you've actually taken.

Additionally, podcasts are fantastic because they allow you to multitask.  As an absolute podcast addict myself, I love spending time listening to podcasts while I"m doing other solitary activities.  Before getting into the car, going on a run, or cooking dinner, I love to have a podcast to make the most of my time.  It makes me feel more productive and helps me use my time efficiently.

Don't use podcasts exclusively for practicing note-taking.  If you decide to listen to podcasts while doing other tasks, you can increase the amount of time spent engaging with English.  This can help you internalize stress patterns, making speech sound more natural.

Additionally, for podcasts that come out regularly, simply subscribe so you get each new episode as soon as it goes live.  Instead of needing to find Listening Practice, the practice will come to you naturally, making you more likely to follow through.  This can help keep you on a regular schedule as episodes tend to broadcast the same time each week.  Get additional motivation to listen to the podcasts by using push notifications so you listen right away.

Don't feel like podcasts end with consumption.  Instead, many of the podcasts can leave you with new words to use, new strategies to implement, and new ideas to make small talk about.  This is particularly true if you are listening to a podcast that features current events. 

Some students make the mistake of only looking at podcasts that are designed for English language learners, but for advanced students like those preparing for the TOEFL, be sure to select a mix of those designed for non-native speakers and those that are produced by and for native speakers.

TOEFL Prep Podcast Round-Up: What Podcasts To Listen To

D2B English

Down 2 Business English is a business focused podcast that covers current events and trends.  Hosts Dez, Skip, and Samantha frequently make small talk before the strictly business portion of the conversation takes place, and this is also quite valuable for learning slang.  As they move into the business conversation, listen for definitions of terms.  The trio takes on interesting and relevant topics that make this podcast appealing even if you aren't interested in business.

Why this podcast is great for TOEFL prep: The business conversation casually mixes in business terms and concepts.  This will be helpful for growing your vocabulary in this discipline but also in regards to listening for definitions of new terms.  The conversations mirror the types of conversations that you might hear if a student goes to see a professor during office hours as one host will sometimes provide definitions or clarification and the other might ask about a term that they anticipate the audience will not know.

Business English Pod (Specifically the Business English News)

The Business English podcast is another great option for those who plan on joining the corporate world either before or after they take the TOEFL.  While some episodes offer advice for business interactions, like making small talk or placing phone calls with clients, the episodes labeled Business English News are particularly useful for students intending on studying any major.

Why this podcast is great for TOEFL prep: The Business English News episodes in particular parallel the integrated essay nicely.  Typically the episode will start with a summary of the current understanding or thought process on a topic and then the rest of the lecture will go into detail about the opposite, clearing up a misconception, or emerging information and trends on the topic.  Take a look at Episode 40 on Renewable Energy here.  Additionally, the length of the episodes is ideal for TOEFL prep.  Although the lectures on the integrated section won't be of nearly that length, the lectures in the Listening section are often about six minutes long.

6 Minute English

The BBC's 6 Minute English is a fantastic podcast designed for more advanced language learners.  One topic is discussed for the length of the episode, and the topics focus on trends in society.

Why this podcast is perfect for TOEFL prep: The information from 6 Minute English is great for small talk.  They cover topics from fads in health, technology, food and so much more.  The tone between the hosts is casual, but they incorporate facts and academic terms throughout, making it great for practicing TOEFL note-taking.  Use those facts you've written down to add to casual conversations next time one of these current events comes up during the course of everyday conversation.

BBC Radio's A History of the World in 100 Objects

While this podcast no longer produces regular episodes as all 100 objects have been featured, this specialized podcast presents an extremely academic and in-depth look at one object per episode.  This podcast sounds like a series one might find on the History Channel.

Why it is perfect for TOEFL prep: The TOEFL covers a number of different academic disciplines.  This podcast is great for getting additional exposure to anthropology.  The objects date back hundreds of years.  Given the variety of objects covered, interdisciplinary connections can be seen with art, economics, and much more.  The level of detail in each of these podcasts make it useful for TOEFL listening.

ESL Pod's English Cafe

Expand your vocabulary with ESL Pod's English Cafe.  This podcast covers cultural topics regarding famous Americans and significant locations, commonly confused words and phrases, and a ton of new vocabulary that you can find in the show notes for the episode.

Why it is great for TOEFL prep: These episodes feature a number of shorter segments.  The portion that features a tutorial on commonly confused words and phrases is an excellent tutorial that can help you avoid mistakes on the productive sections-- Speaking and Writing-- of the exam.

I Will Teach You a Language

This podcast, delivered in English, is on the topic of language learning.  Olly Richards, a renowned polyglot, shares his own insights on language learning and interviews other language learning experts.  This podcast goes live twice a week, so you have tons of new content to digest.  There are a ton of worthwhile episodes to listen to but stay focused by beginning with this list of his most popular episodes.

Why it is perfect for TOEFL prep: This podcast goes beyond simply listening to English; this podcast features actionable items related to the process of making your language learning experience more efficient and effective.  Covering topics from best practices for flash cards to finding more time for practice to overcome problems with fossilization and pronunciation, Olly provides many useful tips that can be applied to English learning and even test prep.

Luke's English / Luke's Phrasal Verb Podcast

Luke's English Podcast is great for those who are looking for British English pronunciations as well as entertainment.  With nearly 500 episodes regularly over an hour long, there is a nearly endless supply of listening material here.  Luke is incredibly honest and entertaining.  He expresses his views on a variety of real-world topics from friendship to fatherhood to television shows and everything in between.  (Bonus- for quick vocabulary tutorials, check out Luke's Phrasal Verb Podcast, too!)

Why this podcast is perfect for TOEFL prep: Because Luke regularly works humor into each episode, this podcast presents a great opportunity for increasing your listening stamina.  This is one of the most vigorous in terms of length, but Luke's engaging personality will make it easy to stay interested. 

NPR's Ted Radio Hour

To get a well-rounded dose of academic English, don't miss Ted Radio Hour.  This weekly podcast gives you the same type of quality information and insight you expect from a Ted Talk in a convenient podcast format.  Hear from experts in a variety of fields share a wealth of knowledge, providing tons of chances to expand your vocabulary in everything from psychology to computer science.

Why this podcast is perfect for TOEFL prep: Ted Talks are given by academics, so you are sure to encounter plenty of TOEFL level terms.  Additionally, because these experts are speaking to a generally educated audience, they will be sure to give plenty of background information and define industry jargon, which will make you comfortable with locating this type of information come test day.

NPR's Hidden Brain

Humans are fascinating, in no small part because of how our brains function.  This podcast is never dull, exploring the inner workings of the mind.  Psychology, anatomy, and physiology dissect the inner workings of the human brain in an attempt to discover why we do with what we do in terms of money, crime, exercise, nostalgia, and so much more.

Why this podcast is perfect for TOEFL prep:  Practice English while also getting a better understanding of how to find your inner motivation, to become a better decision maker, and to make more accurate predictions.  Episodes like Deep Work, detailing methods of immersing ourselves in meaningful work to make progress,  or Summer Melt, explaining the annual deterioration of what has been learned during the months we take off during the summer, might even change the way that you plan your prep time.

Key Takeaways

Podcasts are exceptional sources of free English practice material.  As an advanced language learner, don't limit yourself to podcasts designed for non-native speakers alone.  By combining a mix of ESL focused podcasts, general language learning podcasts, and podcasts intended for native speakers from a variety of disciplines, you can increase your listening time while gaining access to new vocabulary and tons of new ideas.


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If you love podcasts, you are probably a big fan of technology.  Don't use your phone and laptop for the Listening section alone.  Take all of your TOEFL prep into the 21st century by getting Trello for the TOEFL-- your organization system for all your TOEFL resources.

6 Ways to Increase Your Accountability And Stay on Track When Studying for the TOEFL


What is more difficult than taking a standardized test?  For most people, preparing for that exam is harder than the experience of the exam itself. The struggle to get oneself ready for the exam is where much of the real leg work comes in.  So how can we make sure that we stay on track with our test prep? Of course, you want to make a reasonable study plan that helps you avoid common pitfalls, overcome distractions during the time you've allotted for studying, and stop mistaking the illusion of studying for actual progress.  But even if you have done all of these things, it can still be difficult to get into a regular rhythm of getting test-ready.

What it boils down to is needing accountability.  Accountability is a willingness to accept responsibility.  This concept is not unique to test prep or even education.  You will find this idea in everything from dieting advice to business books.  Why?  Because these often involve difficult, long-term goals that can only be met with diligence and consistency.

So, how can you hold yourself more accountable in order to keep up with your study plan? Here are 6 great ways to stick to those #TOEFLgoals.

1. Find an accountability partner (or two).

This is an incredibly common tactic for increasing accountability easily. Chances are if you are studying for the exam, you know of at least one other person doing the same thing.  Send your partner a message at the beginning of the week with your specific plan and goals for the week. Then on a designated day, follow up with a call on FaceTime or Skype to chat about the progress that you've made. An added benefit is that if you are struggling with a certain area, you could ask your partner if they have any advice.

Steal another idea from the business world and start a TOEFL mastermind group. You could start a Slack account (it's free) to message one another when issues come up and have one channel for each of the different sections. This will help you stay organized. A bonus to using Slack is that you can share links and files within in the chat, so you can ask your partners to review a speaking response that you recorded or an essay that you've written.

2. Find a group that allows you to post a progress log

You are probably a member of Facebook groups already, but have you thought about leveraging this group to help increase your accountability?  When you set goals in front of the group, you are more likely to achieve them.  Join a Facebook group that allows you to keep a running progress log, where each week you set goals.  Though you might not get direct feedback like you would with a partner of a mastermind style group, this is a great place to feel like you are making a public declaration that you must stick to and get encouragement from people who are doing the same thing that you are doing.  Don't know where to post?  Coming soon I will be opening the brand new Test Obsessed private Facebook group for you to join, complete with a thread exactly for this purpose.  You might even start there and meet some folks that become accountability partners. 

3. Social share your progress

If you are very brave or you are addicted to posting what you are doing to your Twitter or Instagram streams, why not use that as your motivation?  Sharing with hundreds (or thousands) or your closest friends what you hope to achieve for the week and then being able to tell them that you did it at the end of the week will feel amazing and certainly lead to lots of applauding emojis! 👏🏻 This works on the same premise as posting before and after photos when dieting and exercising and for some people, this might be enough to get them to stick to their goals.  Use the same hashtag to find others doing the same thing so you can cheer them on.  You won't want to let those who follow you down, so you are more likely to hit the goal you had set forth.

4. Use a paper tracker

For those on the opposite end of the personality spectrum, you may want to keep a more private record of your achievements.  While it is still important to set a clear goal in writing, you may want to do it the old fashioned way: using paper and pen to see your progress.  If this seems attractive to you, make sure that you don't cheat by putting your log in a place that is seen frequently.  You may even want to keep a copy of it in more than one place.  While any version that allows you to write your goal, time spent, and measure whether or not the goal was achieved will work, attaching it to a calendar or planner can be even more useful.

5. Use a digital streak tracker

Like the idea of tracking your progress privately but want to bring this technique into the 21st century?  Use a digital tracker to do so.  Go one step further by keeping tabs of the amount of time you have stayed on track for using apps like Streak or Momentum.  You could always use a tool like this in conjunction with a paper and pen tracker to log specific progress.

6. Use journaling methods

Last but certainly not least is journaling to stay accountable.  Journaling is all the rage right now.  You may have heard of the 5-minute journal, the bullet journal or a host of others.  While the particular method isn't important and you should use the one that you most identify with, the reflective nature makes this method a bit deeper than some of the other accountability strategies.  Additionally, it gives you yet another opportunity to write in English, which is a huge fringe benefit.

Grid Diary's clean interface and customizable questions make it a great tool for getting test-day ready.  There is a free version of this app, so there is no reason not to try it out.  A side benefit is that this will also allow you to practice typing on a QWERTY keyboard.  It is one of my favorite apps of all time, so be sure to check it out.

Key Takeaways

Don't feel like you have to select only one method--accountability partners, progress logs, social sharing, paper trackers, digital streak trackers, or journaling-- of holding yourself to the goals that you set.  If you want to share the results of a perfect week in your streak of independent essay writing in a status update on Facebook or with a study partner, by all means, you should do so.  Mix and match as you please, but make sure to keep consistent with both your primary accountability tactic-- which will ensure consistent practice for the exam and an increase in your score.

Perhaps it isn't a surprise that the term accountability is on the rise.  In fact, the word took off in the 1960s and has grown exponentially since.  It is easier than ever to track your data and habits, so make sure to do so (and of, do it in English in order to get even more language practice in.)

Need an idea of what to track?  Grab the free One Month TOEFL Writing Challenge printable here.

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