Ten Awesome Tips for the Listening Section of the TOEFL® Test

First off, if you need any practice you can download our Listening practice for the TOEFL

But if you’re looking for some help on the TOEFL Listening section, whether you’re new to the TOEFL or a TOEFL veteran, I’ve got good news:

You’re in the right place!

These 10 Awesome TOEFL Listening Tips are just what you need to boost your confidence and improve your test-taking skills, whether you are just starting out or you’re having trouble improving your score.

We are not like other TOEFL Prep sites.

We will focus both on what you need to do to improve your TOEFL Listening score and how to do it

Let’s jump right in!

We are not like other TOEFL Prep sites.

We will focus both on what you need to do to improve your TOEFL Listening score and how to do it

Let’s jump right in!

Tip #1: Create a TOEFL Listening study schedule

Time management isn’t just about the test. It’s about the moment you start studying for the exam.

Maximize your TOEFL Listening growth in the least amount of time with a TOEFL study schedule.

Creating a study schedule is the most powerful way to improve your TOEFL Score.

And it’s easy!

Don’t believe me?

Here’s a quick example:

  • Monday, 9:00 – 10:00 am- TST Prep’s Test #13 Listening section.
  • Tuesday, 9:00 – 10:00 am – Review yesterday’s answers. Identify incorrect choices and why I got them wrong.
  • Wednesday, 9:00 – 10:00 am- Transcribe one passage from TST Prep test #13. Identify 5 words, phrases, or sentences that I have trouble understanding. Cross-reference with Youglish to check other examples. Record my own pronunciation.
  • Thursday, 9:00 – 10:00 am- Practice 20 of TST Prep’s 500 TOEFL Listening practice questions.
  • Friday, 9:00 – 10:00 am- Review yesterday’s answers. If there is time, do transcription practice for 3-5x of the more difficult passages.
  • Saturday, 9:00 – 10:00 am- Practice 20 of TST Prep’s 500 TOEFL Listening practice questions. Review answers.
  • Sunday – RELAX! Day off 🙂

If you write it down, you are much more likely to do it. Think about it.

  • daily errands
  • grocery lists
  • appointment schedules

We write these down because they are important and we don’t want to forget.

The same goes for the TOEFL Listening section. You have to write down when and what you plan to study.

Every Sunday, set aside ten minutes to create your weekly schedule. Write down what you plan to study and when you plan to do it. Soon after, you will notice your listening skills grow.

Tip #2: Make your eyes your enemy

Your eyes distract your ears.

Think about when you are having a conversation with someone and there is a TV right behind their head. Your eyes can’t help but notice the screen and you soon realize that you haven’t been listening.

Listening on the TOEFL is even harder than it is in real life.

When talking to someone in real life, we can focus on hand gestures, facial expressions, and body language to give us clues as to what someone is talking about or what emotions they are trying to express.

However, on the TOEFL exam, you can only rely on the voices coming through to your ears. You need to work to diminish your attention to the other four sentences and focus as much attention as possible to the passages.

The problem is that you still can’t just close your eyes as some other sites recommend. You have to take notes and look at the prompts on your screen.

Keep your focus on your computer and workspace. 

When sitting for the exam, you’ll be in a room full of other test-takers. Distraction will abound. But remember…

Don’t let your eyes wander.

Tip #3: Become a note-taking pro

This is one TOEFL Listening tip most students know.

If you’re anything like my past pupils, you probably don’t want to take notes.

In the end, it’s your choice, but I strongly recommend that you do.

Here’s why.

Detail questions are the most common type of question in the TOEFL Listening section. They are nearly impossible to answer without notes.

Think about it.

They ask you about a specific deal within a five-minute lecture. Believe it or not, a five-minute lecture packs a lot of content. It’s about the same length as a 700-word essay.

Even if you already take notes, it’s important for you to learn how to take notes efficiently and effectively.

Proper note taking for the TOEFL Listening is a long conversation.

So long, in fact, that we have a whole article about Taking Notes for the TOEFL Listening if you want to learn more.

Tip #4: Memorize the question types

Although the reading and listening sections are similar, the question types in the listening section are slightly different. The types of questions you may encounter include gist-content, gist-purpose, detail, organization, function, attitude and inference.

You may sometimes see these questions called by a different name, but at the end of the day they’re all the same.

Take a look at this chart to get a better idea of how to identify each question type.

The Listening Section Question Types

Question Type Frequency
(per section)
Question Value Question Phrasing
1. gist - content 6 1 "What is the topic of the discussion?"
"What is the professor mainly discussing?"
2. gist - purpose 3-5 1 "Why does the student visit the professor?"
"Why does the professor mention...?"
3. detail 10-12 1-2 "What is stated in the passage about..."
"According to the speaker..."
4. understanding the speaker's attitude 3-5 1 "What is the professor's oppinion of...?"
"What can be inferred about the student?"
5. understanding the function 3-4 1 "What doest the speaker mean when he says..."
"Why does the professor say this..."
6. making inferences 5-6 1 "What can be inferred about...?"
"What does the speaker imply about..?"
7. understanding organization 4 1-3 "How does the professor organize the information about..."

However, memorizing this chart won’t help you all that much.

While it’s important to know the different question types, it’s even more important for you to know how to answer each type.

If you’re the kind of person who likes to do it all on your own, you can also download our 100 TOEFL Listening Practice questions. Reading about these question types can help, but it’s even more powerful if you experience these questions on your own.

Download your free copy of 100 TOEFL Listening practice questions and gain first-hand knowledge of these TOEFL Listening question types.

Tip #5: Understand the passage structure like a professor

This TOEFL Listening tip is important, so pay attention.

When you understand the structure of a conversation or lecture, you can anticipate what is going to be said and which information is important.

The TOEFL Listening conversation passages have a fairly simple structure:

  • First, a problem is presented by the student.
  • Next, the campus worker offers a solution.
  • Lastly, the student or campus worker typically describes the steps needed to take to solve the problem. Sometimes, this is disguised in the form of requirements of an assignment.


What about with academic lecture passages?

There are actually several different ways an academic lecture could be organized, so it will be important for you to become familiar with what those are.

Lectures are typically organized based on 6 different structures:

  • Cause and Effect
  • Historical Narrative
  • Problem and Solution
  • Sequence of Steps
  • Compare and Contrast
  • Category with Specific Examples

Let’s look at one together right now: a sequence of steps.

Think of a sequence of steps like a recipe in a cookbook. Here’s the first step:

  • Gather all of the ingredients. 

Now, what do you think the next step is going to be?

  • Next, mix the ingredients together. 

Even though you will not find a TOEFL Listening passage on how to bake cookies, you can still organize your thoughts and listen in a much more structured manner. Once you know the possible structure of the passages, it’s much easier to follow the story and identify the most important points.

Take a look at this passage:

The Process of Aging

As human beings grow older, they go through different phases or stages of life. It is helpful to understand aging in the context of these phases. A life course is the period from birth to death, including a sequence of predictable life events such as physical maturation. Each phase comes with different responsibilities and expectations, which of course vary by individual and culture. Children love to play and learn, looking forward to becoming preteens. As preteens begin to test their independence, they are eager to become teenagers.

Teenagers anticipate the promises and challenges of adulthood. Adults become focused on creating families, building careers, and experiencing the world as an independent person. Finally, many adults look forward to old age as a wonderful time to enjoy life without as much pressure from work and family life. In old age, grandparenthood can provide many of the joys of parenthood without all the hard work that parenthood entails. And as work responsibilities abate, old age may be a time to explore hobbies and activities that there was no time for earlier in life. But for other people, old age is not a phase looked forward to. Some people fear old age and do anything to “avoid” it, seeking medical and cosmetic fixes for the natural effects of age. These differing views on the life course are the result of the cultural values and norms into which people are socialized.

This lecture is organized based on the “sequence of steps” structure. The professor introduces the lecture first by mentioning that life happens in phases, and then says it is important to “understand aging in the context of these phases.”


1. Why does the professor talk about “the stages of life?”

a. To contrast the old age lifestyle with the teenage years
b. To differentiate between the behavior and goals of most people at different ages
c. To provide some context as to why many people fear old age
d. To contrast old age with adulthood and emphasize why many look forward to old age

To figure out the correct answer to this question, it’s important to keep in mind that the professor structures the lecture as a sequence of steps, or in this case, the phases of life.

  • A is incorrect because it suggests that the professor is comparing and contrasting ideas in the lecture. A does not tell us why the professor discusses all of the stages of life.
  • C is incorrect because it is a specific detail from one stage of life, whereas the question is directed towards all the stages of life.
  • D is incorrect because similarly to A, it does not have to do with the sequence of phases, but rather suggests that the professor is comparing and contrasting specific stages.
  • Thus, B is correct because the professor describes each stage of life in order to help the students understand aging better. By describing each stage, the professor is differentiating the stages.

Understanding the structure of the passage will help you predict important information and eliminate off-topic question choices.

Tip #6: Focus on vocabulary less, story more

Don’t try to understand everything in the TOEFL Listening. 

Yup, you heard me.

Think of lectures and conversations as stories, the same way you would when watching a movie. You may not understand every word, but the most important thing is that you understand what is happening and the context.

It’s important to brush up on your vocabulary before TOEFL test day, but it won’t be the deciding factor in your final score. When you are listening to the passage, two most important priorities are to identify the following: 

  1. The main idea of the topic 
  2. How the professor illustrates, expands on, or explains the main idea

For example, think of the difference between these two questions…

“What does the professor want me to know?”


“What words don’t I understand?”

The first question focuses more on the bigger picture, whereas the second question only focuses on specific words that may not have anything to do with the purpose of the lecture.

Focusing on specific, lonely vocabulary words will not improve your TOEFL Listening results. Identifying the main idea and the most important details about the main idea will provide you with the information you need to answer more questions correctly.

Pioneer 10 flew past Jupiter in 1973, after which it sped outward toward the limits of the solar system. Pioneer 11 undertook a more ambitious program, using the gravity of Jupiter to aim for Saturn, which it reached in 1979. The twin Voyager spacecraft launched the next wave of outer planet exploration in 1977. Voyagers 1 and 2 each carried 11 scientific instruments, including cameras and spectrometers, as well as devices to measure the characteristics of planetary magnetospheres. Since they kept going outward after their planetary encounters, these are now the most distant spacecraft ever launched by humanity.

This particular excerpt is not dense in terms of new vocabulary, but do you know what spectrometers are or planetary magnetospheres?

I don’t even know what they mean!

Some students hear big words they don’t understand, freak out, and lose focus.

Remember that the TOEFL Listening section is comprised of a variety of question types. Although detail questions are the most common (and even then they don’t ask you what a word means), all of the other questions aren’t necessarily concerned with small details. In fact, they look more like this:

“What is the lecture mainly about?”

“Why does the professor say this?”

“What is the professor implying?”

This is why focusing on specific vocabulary words won’t help you get the score you need.

Tip #7: Be an active listener

Academic lectures in the TOEFL Listening are tough because, well, they’re boring.

I mean, really boring.

When something is boring, no matter what language, it can be difficult to follow the details and comprehend the overall message.

This is exactly why it’s important to actively listen during lectures.

What is active listening?

One definition of active listening is that it requires feedback from the listener. When you are having a conversation with someone, you naturally listen in an active manner because you need to respond.

Most students listen to TOEFL Listening passages passively because they are taking notes on what they heard and trying to understand everything.

  • Passive listening – Trying to understand every detail
  • Active listening – Trying to understand enough to respond 

Stop listening passively, and start listening actively. In conversation passages, pay attention to tone of voice and attitude to help you understand the direction of the conversation.

Listen to the conversation as if you were part of it. How would you respond to the campus worker if you were the student? Or vice versa?

On the other hand, listen to a lecture as if you were really in the classroom. What questions might you have for the professor based on the information given?

Whether or not you take notes, there are plenty of ways to make sure your mind is alert and active during the TOEFL Listening section.

Tip #8: Think like a North American teacher

This TOEFL Listening tip will empower you to think differently about the listening passages.

Let me explain.

When you think like a teacher, you start asking the right questions.

  • “Why was this information given?”
  • “Why is this detail here?”
  • “What does the teacher want me to know?”

When you ask these kinds of questions, you’re thinking like a teacher. This is because ever single utterance in a lecture should be there for a reason, especially on the TOEFL. Each detail of a lecture builds off of another. It’s all interconnected.

Teachers speak with purpose, and the intention is to help students understand new and important information.

This TOEFL Listening tip will empower you to think differently about the listening passages.

Let me explain.

When you think like a teacher, you start asking the right questions.

  • “Why was this information given?”
  • “Why is this detail here?”
  • “What does the teacher want me to know?”

When you ask these kinds of questions, you’re thinking like a teacher. This is because ever single utterance in a lecture should be there for a reason, especially on the TOEFL. Each detail of a lecture builds off of another. It’s all interconnected.

Teachers speak with purpose, and the intention is to help students understand new and important information.

When you think like a student, you ask questions like:

  • “Is this going to be on the test?”
  • “Will there be a question about this detail?”

That’s not going to help you. In fact, it’s going to frustrate you. When you think like a student and ask these small questions, you neglect to see the bigger picture, which holds many more answers (like tip#6, think about vocabulary less, story more).

Answers emerge when you understand how all of the information is interconnected.

Watch this video if you want to learn more about thinking like a teacher.

Tip #9: Track your study progress

By keeping track of your progress, you can evaluate where you are at and how much further you need to go. Also, this is a great way to remind yourself of how much you’ve already done!

Why do you think people who are trying to lose weight step on the scale?

They want to track their progress. 

Seeing that you lost a couple of pounds already is a great way to keep you motivated.

If you don’t feel like you are improving, you are going to lose motivation.

Tracking your progress on the TOEFL is a bit trickier than measuring your weight.

Here’s an example of what you could do for the TOEFL Reading. Let’s say you do the first reading passage in TST Prep’s Test #13
and score an 8/14.

  • Write that down along with the date.
  • Continue to do the same with different passages, while also reflecting on what you have learned.
  • Take the same tests again, perhaps two weeks later. Compare your score and reflect on what you have learned.
  • Celebrate! You have improved 🙂

If you notice a positive trend in your scores, use that to remind yourself that you can do this!

Similarly to weight loss, sometimes we feel like we’ve reached a plateau when studying for a big test like the TOEFL, but with a little reminder of how much you’ve already accomplished, you are sure to find the extra motivation you need to keep pushing forward.

Tip #10: Don’t panic

As test day approaches, nerves will creep into your psyche. 

It’s natural. 

There is no way to avoid feeling nervous, so the first step is to accept that you will be a bit scared when you take the test.

And that’s great.

Fear is a good indicator that you are doing something meaningful.

But you will want to manage that fear and minimize it. 

First of all, a few days before the test, do NOT do anything new. This includes taking more practice exams.

Although taking a practice exam may seem like a good idea, if you end up with a “bad” score, you will start to panic.

Instead, take tests you have already done, review your notes, and refresh your memory of what you’ve already learned.

Not taking any new tests within 5 days of your TOEFL exam will help build your confidence.

Here are some more tips to help you feel less stressed on test day:

  • Get a good night’s sleep
  • Take deep breaths
  • Stretch out any tension or anxiety with some yoga poses

And, most importantly, remember that your family, friends, and health are much more important than a test score!



Phew! That was a lot.

Since you’re still here, that means you’re serious about doing well, which is why we think you should download our 100 Practice Questions for the TOEFLListening Section

There’s nothing worse than showing up to the exam center and wishing you had practiced more!

Did we miss anything? (or just want to say thanks!) 

Let us know in the comments section below. 

Don’t hesitate to reach out and let us know if you have any questions at [email protected] 

Happy studies!


  1. Abdurraheem Ahamad Raji

    Am so delighted of been guided on do(s)and don’t(s) of TOEFL listening section and I wish to learn more

    • Josh

      I’m happy to hear you found it helpful. You might also find some additional tips in this Youtube video as well – https://youtu.be/b1kPX7X-quI


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