Background (may be skipped):

In training neural networks, usually stochastic gradient descent (SGD) is used: instead of computing the network's error on all members of the training set and updating the weights by gradient descent (which means waiting a long time before each weight update), use each time a minbatch of members, and treat the resulting error as an unbiased estimation of the true error.

In reinforcement learning, sometimes Q-learning is implemented with a neural network (as in deep Q-learning), and experience replay is used: Instead of updating the weights by the previous (state,action,reward) of the agent, update using a minibatch of random samples of old (states,actions,rewards), so that there is no correlation between subsequent updates.

The Question:

Is the following assertion correct?: When minibatching in SGD, one weights update is performed per the whole minibatch, while when minibatching in Q-learning, one weights update is performed per each member in the minibatch?


3 Answers 3


The answer is no. The Q-network's parameters can be updated at once using all examples in a minibatch. Denote the members of the minibatch by $(s_1,a_1,r_1,s'_1),(s_2,a_2,r_2,s'_2),...,(s_M,a_M,r_M,s'_M)$ Then the loss is estimated relative to the current Q-network's parameters:


This is an estimation of the true loss, which is an expectation over all $(s,a,r)$. In this way, the updating of the parameters of Q is like in SGD.


  • The estimation is biassed since it does not contain a term representing the variance due to $s'$, but this does not change the direction of the gradient.
  • Sometimes, the second set of parameters $\theta$ in the squared expression is not the current one but a past one (double Q-learning).

No, the gradient is still calculated from the whole mini-batch. If you want to read about this: This goes back to fitted Q iteration [1] and possibly further. DQN is an iteration of neurally fitted Q-iteration (the main author of that one was also on the DQN paper) which builds on this one. The fact that it's done this way, is also in the DQN paper.

[1] Ernst, Damien, Pierre Geurts, and Louis Wehenkel. "Tree-based batch mode reinforcement learning." Journal of Machine Learning Research 6.Apr (2005): 503-556.


FYI - SGD is not always used for ANN training. Probably look at ANN performance differences for "online" vs "batch" training. Batch learning keeps a cumulative of the derivative based on all training object visited in the sweep, and then updates connection weights after the sweep through all training objects. Online learning updates connection weights using the derivative for each training object as it is swept over.

Results based on different learning approaches depend on the data.

  • $\begingroup$ How I see it is that "online" is just a special case of "batch", where the batch size is one. In both cases you don't calculate the $L^2$ norm over all training instances, but rather only on a small subset (one or more), the underlying assumption being that the subset gives a estimator for the true error (the assumption is valid if we can assume that the instances are drawn at random from some distribution, and if the error function has certain forms). But I'm more interested in the differences between SGD as it applies to supervised learning and to reinforcement Q-learning. $\endgroup$
    – Lior
    Commented Dec 24, 2016 at 18:49

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