Effective Note-taking for TOEFL Success

Taking notes is a dual skill (using the brain and the body) that is one of the most essential academic skills for successful learning at university. People need notes to remember important information which they can use later on. Of course it is challenging since it is mentally and physically demanding. Whether you are taking notes on a class material, a text, an article, a reading passage, or a presentation, video, podcast, audio, or lecture, you have to train your hand to physically move and take notes while your ears keep listening or your eyes move along the material. Essentially, you are training yourself to do two actions at the same time, thinking and moving your hand to transcribe or moving your fingers to type.


Can you remember back to a time when you mastered a physical skill? Think to when you were a child. Did you every play a sport that you got good at or play an instrument? Advancing at a sport or playing a musical instrument well did not happen in one day. You need to perfect these physical skills with practice. The same strategy works for note-taking activities. If you are able to practice taking improved notes on a day by day basis, you will become more confident, and eventually a master.


To accomplish taking good notes in another language is a complex feat since you are using another set of skills working in a non-native language. In most cases, there are those college students who type on a laptop what is spoken in class, and in recent studies in university classes it has been discovered that this type of note-taking is not necessarily developing critical thinking skills on the material since the fingers are simply typing what is being said. On the other hand, hand-written lecture notes has proven to be effective in cases where the writer is able to abbreviate concisely what is being said quickly by a lecturer without letting the pen or pencil movement distract from listening to the key points of the lecture content.


For taking notes on lectures, you can listen to videos, podcasts, English TV or movies, or audios to gain improvement and comfort on your note-taking speed, accuracy, and skill. Listen only once so that you simulate TOEFL. You will only be able to listen once on the day of the exam, so when you listen to a lecture just once, you force your ears into training your brain to listen and write at the same time. Use shorter lectures under 5:00 minutes for note-taking practice. If you choose to do longer listening to videos or lectures of over five minutes (let’s say a 30-minute Ted talk, for instance,) then simply listen for advancing your listening skills rather than taking notes.

To practice for the TOEFL exam, aim for listening an hour per day. You can listen to longer lectures during your commute, for example. Practice at least five minutes note-taking each day on short lectures or news clips. For successful notes, consider and concentrate on these steps:


  1. Which words are the best terms to write in your notes? (nouns—subjects or objects + verbs–actions) vs. What words should you avoid writing in your notes (prepositions, articles)?
  2. Which abbreviations are smart to use? (e.g. Btw, w/, o, wt./yd./in/gal univ., months, directions, co, corp, no., op, pop., pt., pl., sing.ie., inc. inst, dr, dist, div., aca, alt, assn, b. [born in])
  3. Which symbols help have faster notes in TOEFL? &, +, ß, à, X, %, $, #, @, <, >
  4. What’s another way to speed up accurate note-taking? Write no vowels in words or shorten words: e.g. universityàuni., peopleà p, studentsàss, studyà s, talkà t, schoolà schl, technologyàtch, informationànfo
  5. Listen (at the beginning) for what happened and who—what person that did the action (often the main purpose)
  6. Listen for key points that will support a description of what happened and who—steps… why (reason)
  7. Listen for details to support those points: where (place), how (in what way/manner), when (time, year, month, date, day), who (people involved), how much or how many
  8. After you listen and take notes during some TOEFL speaking tasks questions, consider the best way to organize your notes quickly and practice that pattern so you can talk easily from your notes.
  9. For other speaking TOEFL questions, build your confidence and comfort level by practicing note-taking.
  10. For the integrated writing task #1, practice note-taking to build speed and accuracy.

Note-taking can help you in all areas of your life. By becoming better at note-taking for TOEFL, you can succeed in improving your score. Once you get into college, you will be building on these skills to take notes well during classes and around campus for studies and professional advancement. Finally, polishing this skill, you will be able to apply this skill to life outside of your studies such as in your career.

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