Understanding the TOEFL Listening Section

Understanding the TOEFL Listening Section


The listening section is the second part of the TOEFL test. It takes between 41 and 57 minutes to complete. In this part of the test, you’ll listen to three or four academic lectures and two or three short conversations. Each lecture is about five minutes long, and each conversation is about three minutes long. After each lecture and conversation you will answer five or six questions.


If the listening section on your test includes four lectures and three conversations, some of the questions will be  unscored. You won’t know which questions are unscored, so you must answer every question to the best of your ability.


The Lectures


Each lecture is about five minutes long, and about 500 to 700 words. Most of the speaking is done by a professor, but occasionally they include comments from students. The topics discussed in the lectures are the sorts of things covered in first-year university classes, so test-takers don’t really need background academic knowledge to comprehend them. The lectures might cover any topics from the arts, social sciences, life sciences, and physical sciences. The most frequent subjects in the  practice tests published by ETS, the creators of the TOEFL, are:

  • Environmental science
  • Art history
  • European history
  • Biology
  • Literature
  • Astronomy
  • Geology
  • Ecology

You might, of course, get lectures about completely different subjects on test day, so be prepared for anything.


The lectures themselves are fairly specific. For example, an environmental science lecture might discuss ways that housing developments reduce the habitats of a certain bird species.  Meanwhile, a European history lecture might talk about why medieval Europeans liked imported spices.


The Conversations




There are two types of conversations on the TOEFL:


  • Office hours conversations between a student and a professor
  • Service encounters between a student and a person working at a campus facility

An “office hours” conversation might be something like a student talking to a professor about joining a research study on campus. A “service encounter” conversation might be a meeting between a student looking for a job and a person working at an employment office.  


The Questions


Each lecture is followed by six questions, and each conversation is followed by five questions. There are  eight types of questions, and all but one type is multiple choice. Usually the multiple choice questions include four answer choices, but occasionally five answer choices are given. You may be required to pick more than one correct answer.


It’s important to understand the types of questions that appear on the test and how they are structured. This will make the TOEFL more predictable, and much less daunting.


Gist-Content Questions


These questions test your understanding of the main idea of the lecture or conversation. They might ask something like:

  • What problem does the man have?
  • What is the talk mainly about?
  • What aspect of X does the lecturer mainly discuss?

  • The best way to solve these questions is to look for answer choices that seem to summarize the entirety of the lecture or conversation. Eliminate any choices that are very specific, or refer to supporting details or examples.


    Gist-Purpose Questions


    These questions test your understanding of the purpose of the conversation or lecture. They might look like:


  • Why does the woman visit the professor?
  • Why does the professor mention X?

  • Master these questions by taking notes about why the professor has mentioned certain supporting examples in the lectures. During an office hours conversation, pay careful attention to what is said at the very beginning. Sometimes the student is visiting the professor for a reason completely unrelated to the main topic of the rest of their conversation.


    Detail Questions


    These questions test your ability to recall specific details and facts from the lectures and conversations. Generally, these details are used to support the main idea of the listening content. They could look like:


      • According to the professor, what are two problems associated with X? (Choose two answers)
  • According to the professor, why did X occur?

  • The best way to prepare for these questions is to take careful notes about examples and arguments that are used to support the speaker’s main point. Don’t be fooled by answer choices that include words that you heard in the conversation or lecture, as they are deliberately used to create attractive but incorrect choices. 


    Function Questions


    For these questions, you will listen once again to a short excerpt from the lecture or conversation and be asked something like:


    • Why does the professor say this? (Replay)
    • What does the professor mean when he says this? (Replay)

    These are quite similar to purpose questions. Look for answer choices that support the main idea, and avoid choices which present information that seems new to you. 


    Attitude Questions


    These questions require you to understand the attitude of a speaker. They test your ability to determine how the speaker feels about a subject, how certain they are about specific details, and whether they are attempting to use irony. (Dictionary.com defines irony as “the use of words to convey a meaning that is the opposite of its literal meaning.”) They often look like this:


  • Why is the woman surprised by the man’s request?
  • How does the professor feel about X?

  • To answer these questions, pay careful attention to the speaker’s tone of voice. Do they ever sound confused? Do they ever sound excited? Once again, try to avoid answers that use words like “never or “always.” These are extremes that are often used to create incorrect answer choices.


    Organization Questions


    These questions test your ability to grasp connections between ideas and examples. In lectures, you will also need to understand why details are presented in a certain order or sequence. This question type generally appears following lectures rather than conversations. Questions of this type look something like this:


  • The professor mentions the example of X. What point does he use this example to illustrate?
  • How does the professor organize the details related to X?

  • Answering these questions requires fairly detailed notes. When you see one of these questions, look at your notes for clues about the overall organization of the lecture. Try to determine if the details in the lecture are presented in chronological order or some other intentional sequence. If you are not sure why a specific example was mentioned in the lecture, check to see if the reason was given at a later point.


    Connecting Content Questions


    These are the only questions in this section that are not multiple choice. They require you to place a list of items into specific categories, or to organize a list of items into a specific order. For instance, following a lecture about the body types of animals, you may be required to sort some animals—all mentioned in the lecture—into “vertebrate” or “invertebrate” categories. If the lecture is about technological changes in the early motion picture industry, you may be required to organize some changes—again, all mentioned in the lecture—from earliest to latest.


    Master this type by taking organized notes. Don’t scribble answers blindly on your page, but instead use techniques like charts and arrows to ensure that the order of your notes matches the order used by the speaker.


    Inference Questions


    This question type requires you to make conclusions based on facts and details you have heard. The correct answer choices are not explicitly mentioned in the lecture or conversation, but are logical and correct based on details thatare mentioned. They usually look like this:


  • What can be inferred about X?
  • What does the man imply about X?
  • What was the student likely doing before the conversation?
  • What will the man probably do next?

  • When selecting an answer, look for choices that use vocabulary not heard in the lecture or conversation. You should also eliminate answer choices that don’t make sense based on your overall understanding of the lecture or conversation. Remember that the correct choices will be the most logical ones based on what you have heard.


    How to Sharpen Your Listening Skills


    One of the most challenging aspects of this section of the test is that it involves listening to topics that we rarely discuss in our everyday life. Even native speakers struggle to pay attention to a steady stream of scientific or historical facts and details. To be honest, this kind of material can be quite boring.


    For this reason, it’s important to expose yourself to related content on a regular basis. A few of my favourites include:



    These are all fairly short podcasts, ranging from a few minutes to 20 minutes long. Take notes as you listen to them, and think about the question types above. See if you can determine the main ideas of each episode, and why certain supporting details and examples are given.


    Further Reading


    The best source of sample TOEFL listening tests are the  three official TOEFL books published by ETS. You can also download  a collection of lectures from the ETS website.