Note Taking

Taking notes while listening to a lecture or discussion is one of the most important skills a student must acquire, as it allows the student to return to the lecture later on and summarize the main points delivered therein. It is invaluable for any student in higher education contexts.

This skill is also one of the many tested by the TOEFL English exam. The Listening section of this exam does not provide the test taker with any access to the lectures and conversations, except for their notes, when it comes time to answer the questions. All that appears on the screen during the lecture or dialogue is a photograph that is generally meant to create a context. The photo does not provide any useful information in regards to the questions and available answer choices. To do well in this section, as well as the integrated components of the Speaking and Writing sections of the exam, a test taker MUST take notes; it is extremely difficult for most people to retain all the necessary information they heard during the recording.

Note taking, luckily, is a skill that can be learned. However, just as with any new skill, it must be practiced if it is to be effective.

So where do we begin?

Firstly, you must create your own dictionary of shorthand and codes. These are abbreviations, acronyms, and symbols that can stand in place of full words. The simplest way to create an abbreviation is to simply remove all the vowels in the word (smpl wy 2 crt abbr … rmv vwls). This coding must be an individual exercise because it is ultimately you, the test taker, who must be able to decode the notes and translate them into sentences with meaning.

For example:

Accm bkd  notetaking chart6  4w = accommodations must be booked four weeks in advance.

Don’t worry if you don’t know what the shorthand means. This is a personal shorthand. You need to create your own and practice it so that on test day you can do this as well.

That being said, we have provided you with a long list of standard abbreviations and acronyms to help get you started (see Brain Mine, Lists)

Once you have practiced this coding step, you can turn to the next step of note taking: organizing your notes in a way that will enable you to see the relationships, highlights, and key points to write down on your scrap paper. (Note: All exam centers provide test takers with scrap paper to work on. This paper will not be looked at when it comes to your scoring.)

Note: Do not try to write down every word you hear. Firstly, this is because you don’t need to; it is better to get a more general idea and write down only those details highlighted or emphasized by the speaker. Secondly, you want to listen more than write. Writing too much distracts you from the recording and may lead you to miss key points.

It is important to take into account the organization of the lecture and/or dialogue first, in order to know how to set up your own organization chart. For example, if you are listening to two people expressing opposing sides of an argument, you will want your chart to reflect that division—split the speakers into separate columns and stagger the points and notes to reflect the progression of the discussion as well as how the speakers respond to each other:

notetaking chart

If you are listening to a lecture delivered by one speaker, then have a single column, with the main topic and thesis at the top, and take individual notes as you hear them. Make sure that the notes you write down are directly related to the main topic and support the thesis. If the speaker breaks the topic and/or thesis into separate parts, you will do this as well and divide your column into two areas:

notetaking chart2

notetaking chart3

If you are listening to a description of a process, create a diagram that follows the progression of the process, not the speaker. A speaker may speak using perfect tenses, or he/she might digress, jump forward, go off topic, and then finally return to the main topic; it is up to the listener to maintain the order and arrange the events or actions in a chronological sequence:

notetaking chart4

What to write, and what not to write:

The first thing you want to understand and write down is the gist of the lecture, the overall topic and, if applicable, the thesis. You need to understand what the speaker’s aim is. Write this down. Then, make sure you pay attention to the main points used to support this aim, or to help the speaker reach the desired conclusion.

Write down examples, especially repeated ones. If the speaker is using an example that opposes the aim of the speech, then pay attention to the “turnaround”, when the speaker will return to attack that example as a way of supporting the main aim.

Write down steps in a sequence. Listen for (but don’t write down) the cues that introduce/switch to a new step. Then write down the step in general terms.

Listen for and write down reasons, causes and effects, conclusions, predictions, comparative words (more than, __er, as ____ as), and any cues to a point being made. Write these down, again, in general terms.

If listening to a comparison of different physical areas, divide them into the categories presented and write down general descriptions, enough that you will be able to identify the differences in a visual presentation.

Do not write full sentences. These waste time and take away from your ability to focus on what is being said.

Do not write details such as time, date, price, and other minor details. You will generally not be asked to demonstrate you heard these. Keep to general ideas. However, if the name of a company, for instance, is repeated several times as an example of something, write that name down. If the lecture is describing Cinco de Mayo (5th of May), as another instance, then write down this date as it is the main point of the lecture.

Do not write down technical words. If there will be a question about it, then it will either be repeated or it will appear as part of the question. You are not expected to know the spelling of technical words.

Do not write particular expressions. If they want to test you on their meaning in context, they will replay them for you.

Obviously, the best way to understand this is to see an example:

Here is a transcript of a listening sample available online at ETS:

(Narrator) Listen to part of a lecture in a literature class.

(Male professor) Today I’d like to introduce you to a novel that some critics consider the finest detective novel ever written. It was also the first. We’re talking about The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. Now, there are other detective stories that preceded The Moonstone historically, Um, notably the work of Poe . . . Edgar Allen Poe’s stories, such as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and . . . “The Purloined Letter.” Now these were short stories that featured a detective . . . uh, probably the first to do that. But The Moonstone, which follows them by about twenty years, it was published in 1868, this is the first full-length detective novel ever written.

Now, in The Moonstone, if you read it as . . . uh, come to it as a contemporary reader, what’s interesting is that most of the features you find in almost any detective novel are in fact already present. Uh, it’s hard at this juncture to read this novel and realize that no one had ever done that before, because it all seems so strikingly familiar. It’s, it’s really a wonderful novel and I recommend it, even just as a fun book to read, if you’ve never read it. Um, so in The Moonstone, as I said, Collins did much to establish the conventions of the detective genre. I’m not gonna go into the plot at length, but, you know, the basic set-up is . . . there’s this diamond of great . . . of great value, a country house, the diamond mysteriously disappears in the middle of the night, uh, the local police are brought in, in an attempt to solve the crime, and they mess it up completely, and then the true hero of the book arrives. That’s Sergeant Cuff.

Now, Cuff, this extraordinarily important character . . . well, let me try to give you a sense of who Sergeant Cuff is, by first describing the regular police. And this is the dynamic that you’re going to see throughout the history of the detective novel, where you have the regular cops, who are well-meaning, but officious and bumblingly inept, and they are countered by a figure who’s eccentric, analytical, brilliant, and . . . and able to solve the crime. So, first the regular police get called in to solve the mystery. Um, in this case, detective, uh, Superintendent Seegrave. When Superintendent Seegrave comes in, he orders his minions around, they bumble, and they actually make a mess of the investigation, which you’ll see repeated, um, you’ll see this pattern repeated, particularly in the Sherlock Holmes stories of a few years later where, uh, Inspector Lestrade, this well-meaning idiot, is always countered, uh, by Sherlock Holmes, who’s a genius.

So, now Cuff arrives. Cuff is the man who’s coming to solve the mystery, and again he has a lot of the characteristics that future detectives throughout the history of this genre will have. He’s eccentric. He has a hobby that he’s obsessive about, in this . . . in his case, it’s the love of roses. He’s a fanatic about the breeding of roses; and here think of Nero Wolfe and his orchids, Sherlock Holmes and his violin, a lot of those later classic detective heroes have this kind of outside interest that they . . . they go to as a kind of antidote to the evil and misery they encounter in their daily lives. At one point, Cuff says he likes his roses because they offer solace, uh, an escape, from the world of crime he typically operates in.

Now, these detective heroes . . . they have this characteristic of being smart, incredibly smart, but of not appearing to be smart. And most importantly, from a kind of existential point of view, these detectives see things that other people do not see. And that’s why the detective is such an important figure, I think, in our modern imagination. In the case of The Moonstone, I don’t want to say too much here and spoil it for you ’but the clue that’s key to . . . the solving of the crime is a smeared bit of paint in a doorway. Of course, the regular police have missed this paint smear or made some sort of unwarranted assumption about it. Cuff sees this smear of paint, this paint, the place where the paint is smeared, and realizes that from this one smear of paint you can actually deduce the whole situation . . . the whole world. And that’s what the hero in a detective novel like this . . . brings to it that the other characters don’t it’s this ability to, uh, see meaning where others see no meaning and to bring order . . . to where it seems there is no order.

Here is a sample of notes:

notetaking chart5

Keep in mind that the person who took these notes can read his own writing. Make sure you write well enough to understand your own notes later on. For some people, writing down the notes is good enough. Once written, the information is retained and does not need to be reviewed. For others, these notes will make the difference between a high and a low score on the listening components of the test.

From the notes, we can understand that the lecture describes the genre of the detective novel, and more specifically the characteristics of the detective in these stories.

With that in mind, we can now look at the questions:

  1. What is the lecture mainly about?
  2. a. A comparison of two types of detective novels
    b. Ways in which detective novels have changed over time
    c. The Moonstone as a model for later detective novels
    d. Flaws that can be found in the plot of The Moonstone

  1. In what way is The Moonstone different from earlier works featuring a detective?
  2. a. In its unusual ending
    b. In its unique characters
    c. In its focus on a serious crime
    d. In its greater length

  1. According to the professor, what do roses in The Moonstone represent?
    a. A key clue that leads to the solving of the mystery
    b. A relief and comfort to the detective
    c. Romance between the main characters
    d. Brilliant ideas that occur to the detective
  1. Why does the professor mention a smeared bit of paint in a doorway in The Moonstone?
    a. To describe a mistake that Sergeant Cuff has made
    b. To show how realistically the author describes the crime scene
    c. To exemplify a pattern repeated in many other detective stories
    d. To illustrate the superior techniques used by the police
  1. What can be inferred about the professor when he says this: “Uh, it‘s hard at this
    juncture to read this novel and realize that no one had ever done that before, because it all seems so strikingly familiar.
    a. He is impressed by the novel’s originality.
    b. He is concerned that students may find the novel difficult to read.
    c. He is bored by the novel’s descriptions of ordinary events.
    d. He is eager to write a book about a less familiar subject.
  1. What does the professor imply when he says this: “. . . well, let me try to give you a sense of who Sergeant Cuff is, by first describing the regular police.”
    a. Sergeant Cuff is unlike other characters in The Moonstone.
    b. The author’s description of Sergeant Cuff is very realistic.
    c. Sergeant Cuff learned to solve crimes by observing the regular police.
    d. Differences between Sergeant Cuff and Sherlock Holmes are hard to describe.

Key to Listening section: 6.c 7.d 8.b 9.c 10.a 11.a