10 Tips for Taking Notes on TOEFL

Taking notes is about balance. You need to know what is important to take a note on, but at the same time, you’ve got to pay attention to what the lecturer is saying so that you don’t miss what’s coming up.

This balancing act requires practice. Take notes, but not on everything. In the beginning of your TOEFL preparation studies, you may just listen for an overall idea and not take any notes at all. Once you decide to take notes (because they may help you remember key details), you have to know which words are important to write down and which words are not.

The following 10 items are important to note in a TOEFL lecture or academic discussion.


1. TOPIC and THESIS/MAIN IDEA. In the beginning, listen for the topic or thesis (the speaker’s argument or opinion) and write this down. Sometimes there is a hook at the beginning of a lecture that is there to catch your attention. It might be a short story. Perhaps the professor is asking some opening questions. Do not write these down. Wait to get the main idea or bigger picture first.

2. WORD THAT IS REPEATED. If it’s repeated, it’s important.

3. DEFINITION. The definition of a keyword is important.

4. FUNCTION/PURPOSE. What does this keyword do? Why is this important? If the lecture is talking about mass production, what is the purpose of it? How does it work?

5. SUPPORTING POINTS. Often times you’ll hear: first, second, next, finally – these signal important points that support the main idea. They may also be steps in a process. Write down one or two words that will help you remember a supporting point.

6. ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS. If it’s an academic discussion, the student or professor might ask a question or the professor may ask a rhetorical question (a question that is not meant to be answered by the students). This is a HUGE indicator that the answer to this question will be important.

7. EXAMPLES. You might not catch them all, but try to catch at least ONE. You might write down 1 or 2 words to remember the example and actually listen for how the example works. (In your mind, remember how it works.)

8. ANTICIPATE WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT. When you actively listen, you become good at predicting what will happen in the lecture. When we are presented with a problem, we can guess that there are some solutions to it. For example, you are listening to a psychology lecture and the professor is talking about a mental disorder. You anticipate that there will be a list of symptoms and negative side effects for the disorder, but there will also be a potential cure. If you are listening to a lecture on alternative energy, the professor might point out the advantages and then the disadvantages of an energy source. The professor might discuss current environmental problems and then propose solutions.


Huge signal words from the professor include:

The main point to consider is…

What I want to focus on is…

The key thing is…

What I’m interested in is…..

Now, what we’re going to do is…

You must keep in mind…

One important factor is…

One reason is…

Due to ….

This resulted in….

If you hear any of the above signal words, pay close attention to what comes right after.

10. THE LAST THING SAID. Sometimes, it can be frustrating to try to catch all the above. You might want to give up. DON’T!!! If you didn’t catch the main idea, it might be repeated at the end. The professor might indicate what the students will do next for class or what the next topic will be and there will be a question that asks us to infer what will happen next. Get this question right by listening to the last thing said.

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