TOEFL test taking tips

TOEFL Booster / ‘Purposeful’ notes in listening

In last month’s TOEFL Booster column, we considered some brief tips for taking main-idea notes. This month, we will look further into note-taking strategies. In particular, we will discuss some ways in which notes can be valuable for “gist-purpose” listening questions. Then we look at a case in which you should NOT try to take notes.

As we said last month, “gist” means “central idea.” In the case of a TOEFL listening passage, gist can be of two types. First, gist can refer to the main content of a listening passage. After a lecture in the listening section of the Internet-based TOEFL Test (iBT), a question will be asked about this type of gist. When you take notes about a lecture, you want to make sure you record clues that can indicate this main idea, this gist in the content.

However, not all the listening passages in the iBT are lectures. Some of them involve conversations that take place in academic settings. For example, a listening passage might present a conversation between a student and a professor that takes place in the professor’s office. In another case, the conversation might take place between a university librarian and a student.

After a conversation like this, the iBT will probably not ask a “gist-content” question. Instead, the first question after the conversation will probably be a “gist-purpose” question. A gist-purpose question asks about the main reason why one speaker is talking to the other. For example, the question might ask, “Why did the student go to the professor’s office?”

When taking notes about a conversation, you should try to write down clues that will show what this purpose is. Consider our example of a student visiting a professor’s office. Knowing the situation–“student visits professor”–is not enough. Your notes must go further. Students visit their professors for many reasons–for extra help, to explain why they were absent, to ask for career advice, and so on. Which one applies in this case?

Here is a very short piece of a TOEFL-like conversation. A student has gone to visit a professor.


Professor (P): Yes? Oh, hi, Mark. What can I do for you?

Student (S): Hi, Dr. Martin. Do you have a couple of minutes? I, uh, have a question.

P: Of course. What’s the question?

S: Well, I was looking over the course description again, and I’m confused. It says we have to write a research paper, and I…

P: Wait a minute. You mean the description I gave out in the first class?

S: Yes. I mean, no. The one on the Internet.

P: The Internet? From the university’s Web site?

S: I guess so.

P: That’s a surprise. I don’t think the university Web site has a full description of the course.

S: It’s from…uh…can’t remember exactly, but something dot com.

P: Well then, you know it’s not an official university site. The university’s sites all have dot edu in them.

S: So this site is wrong? We don’t have to write a paper. How come it’s on the Internet?

P: A Web site like that is not much of a guide. Don’t base any decision on it. I mean, how do you judge the reliability of an anonymous site?


SAMPLE QUESTION 1: Why does the student go to see the professor?

a. To get help with a research paper

b. To get a course description

c. To ask about the course requirements

d. To explain why he was absent


This is a typical “gist-purpose” question. Of course, the correct answer is “C.” The student is confused because of wrong information on a Web site. This information mentions a paper. But the student’s question is not about the paper–only about whether one is required.

Before we leave the topic of note-taking, we should recognize that there are limits to the value of notes. In fact, in some cases note-taking can create problems for you. Like any other iBT activity, notes take time, energy and concentration. Spending these resources in the wrong situations can reduce your test-taking efficiency.

It is wasteful to try taking notes on the exact words a speaker uses in the listening section of the test. Questions on the iBT never assume that you remember every word of a sentence. In any question that requires a very specific understanding of exact wording, the iBT will let you listen to those words again.

Let’s take an example from our sample passage above. You might see an iBT question about specific wording, but the form of the question would be something like this:



Listen again to part of the conversation. Then answer the question. [heard again] “A Web site like that is not much of a guide. Don’t base any decision on it. I mean, how do you judge the reliability of an anonymous site?”

What does the professor mean when she says, “How do you judge the reliability of an anonymous site?”

a. Web site information offers guidance from experts.

b. Web site text may or may not come from experts.

c. You should look carefully to see who wrote a Web site’s text.

d. You should not criticize Web sites unless you know more than the author.


The correct answer is “b.” Finding this correct answer requires an understanding of the exact wording the professor uses–notably “reliability” and “anonymous.” For most test-takers it would be very hard to put these words into notes. The words are long, complicated and very hard to understand and spell–especially “anonymous.” If you’re taking notes, relax. Understand the general meaning if you can, but don’t feel like you have to write down these words!

I hope that our last two TOEFL Booster columns can help you become a more efficient note-taker on the iBT. Next month, we will look again at one of the most important topics related to the iBT: vocabulary.


Zwier teaches in the English Language Center at Michigan State University. He has written numerous books about the iBT.

(Apr. 2, 2009)

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