There are numerous threads in CrossValidated on the topic of model selection and cross validation. Here are a few:

However, the answers to those threads are fairly generic and mostly highlight the issues with particular approaches to cross validation and model selection.

To make things as concrete as possible, say for example that we are working with an SVM with an RBF kernel: $K(x, x' ) = (\gamma \, \vert x - x'\vert)^2$, and that I have a dataset of features X and labels y, and that I want to

  1. Find the best possible values of my model ($\gamma$ and $C$)
  2. Train the SVM with my dataset (for final deployment)
  3. Estimate the generalization error and the uncertainty (variance) around this error

To do so, I would personally do a grid search, e.g. I try every possible combination of $C$ and $\gamma$. For simplicity, we can assume the following ranges:

  • $C \in \{10, 100, 1000\}$
  • $\gamma \in \{0.1, 0.2, 0.5, 1.0\}$

More specifically, using my full dataset I do the following:

  1. For every ($C$,$\gamma$) pair, I do repeated iterations (e.g. 100 random repetitions) of $K$-fold cross validation (e.g. $K=10$), on my dataset, i.e. I train my SVM on $K-1$ folds and evaluate the error on the fold left, iterating through all $K$ folds. Overall, I collect 100 x 10 = 1000 test errors.
  2. For each such ($C$,$\gamma$) pair, I compute the mean and the variance of those 1000 test errors $\mu_M, \sigma_M$.

Now I want to choose the best model (the best kernel parameters) that I would use to train my final SVM on the full dataset. My understanding is that choosing the model that had the lowest error mean and variance $\mu_M$ and $\sigma_M$ would be the right choice, and that this model's $\mu_M$ are $\sigma_M$ are my best estimates of the model's generalization error bias and variance when training with the full dataset.

BUT, after reading the answers in the threads above, I am getting the impression that this method for choosing the best SVM for deployment and/or for estimating its error (generalization performance), is flawed, and that there are better ways of choosing the best SVM and reporting its error. If so, what are they? I am looking for a concrete answer please.

Sticking to this problem, how specifically can I choose the best model and properly estimate its generalization error?

  • $\begingroup$ To make things as concrete as possible, please tell us: How many statistically independent cases you have in your data set? What is the target function you evaluate for optimization/What kind of error measure do you use? Do you actually observe a consistent behaviour of the chosen error measure over your parameter grid? In case you are talking about classification and your error measure allows this: how do the iterated cross validation results compare to the variance you expect (but cannot measure) due to the finite sample size? $\endgroup$
    – cbeleites
    Commented Jul 25, 2013 at 19:01
  • $\begingroup$ An article that you may find interesting: optimalprediction.com/files/pdf/V2A5.pdf $\endgroup$
    – user31256
    Commented Oct 9, 2013 at 7:35
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ +1 for very clear and detailed question, as well as very relevant question to the data science community at large. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 13, 2018 at 13:47

2 Answers 2


My paper in JMLR addresses this exact question, and demonstrates why the procedure suggested in the question (or at least one very like it) results in optimistically biased performance estimates:

Gavin C. Cawley, Nicola L. C. Talbot, "On Over-fitting in Model Selection and Subsequent Selection Bias in Performance Evaluation", Journal of Machine Learning Research, 11(Jul):2079−2107, 2010. (www)

The key thing to remember is that cross-validation is a technique for estimating the generalisation performance for a method of generating a model, rather than of the model itself. So if choosing kernel parameters is part of the process of generating the model, you need to cross-validate the model selection process as well, otherwise you will end up with an optimistically biased performance estimate (as will happen with the procedure you propose).

Assume you have a function fit_model, which takes in a dataset consisting of attributes X and desired responses Y, and which returns the fitted model for that dataset, including the tuning of hyper-parameters (in this case kernel and regularisation parameters). This tuning of hyper-parameters can be performed in many ways, for example minimising the cross-validation error over X and Y.

Step 1 - Fit the model to all available data, using the function fit_model. This gives you the model that you will use in operation or deployment.

Step 2 - Performance evaluation. Perform repeated cross-validation using all available data. In each fold, the data are partitioned into a training set and a test set. Fit the model using the training set (record hyper-parameter values for the fitted model) and evaluate performance on the test set. Use the mean over all of the test sets as a performance estimate (and perhaps look at the spread of values as well).

Step 3 - Variability of hyper-parameter settings - perform analysis of hyper-parameter values collected in step 3. However I should point out that there is nothing special about hyper-parameters, they are just parameters of the model that have been estimated (indirectly) from the data. They are treated as hyper-parameters rather than parameters for computational/mathematical convenience, but this doesn't have to be the case.

The problem with using cross-validation here is that the training and test data are not independent samples (as they share data) which means that the estimate of the variance of the performance estimate and of the hyper-parameters is likely to be biased (i.e. smaller than it would be for genuinely independent samples of data in each fold). Rather than repeated cross-validation, I would probably use bootstrapping instead and bag the resulting models if this was computationally feasible.

The key point is that to get an unbiased performance estimate, whatever procedure you use to generate the final model (fit_model) must be repeated in its entirety independently in each fold of the cross-validation procedure.

  • $\begingroup$ This is a great answer. When you say rather than repeated cross-validation you would go for bootstrapping - What is exactly the difference? Both involve multiple repetitions of dividing the data into train and test and then training in train and evaluating in test, don't they? $\endgroup$
    – Josh
    Commented Oct 14, 2013 at 20:48
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ Bootstrapping (sampling with replacement) seems a more natural way of performing a large number of re-samplings, as it is more randomised than repeated cross-validation. For bootstrapping the use of bagged enembles is a nice feature, with the out-of-bag error as a performance estimate. There isn't a huge amount to choose between the two. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 15, 2013 at 9:12
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks @Dikran - This made me wonder, assuming that one uses e.g. bootstrapping, how would you choose a good model considering the mean and variance across repetitions? (i.e. what model selection protocol would you follow?). This question poses exactly this question. Getting your input on that thread would be extremely valuable! $\endgroup$
    – Josh
    Commented Oct 15, 2013 at 22:45
  • $\begingroup$ @DikranMarsupial Could you post code (e.g., Python or R) for your steps 1-3? I find it a lot easier to understand such procedures when seeing concrete code. $\endgroup$
    – tobip
    Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 14:49
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Key message: "The key point is that to get an unbiased performance estimate, whatever procedure you use to generate the final model (fit_model) must be repeated in its entirety independently in each fold of the cross-validation procedure." This exact message is also conveyed in The Elements of Statistical Learning (see section 7.10.2): web.stanford.edu/~hastie/Papers/ESLII.pdf $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 13, 2018 at 13:50

Using a SVM with fixed hyperparameters ($\gamma$ and $C$) is a machine learning algorithm.

A procedure that optimizes these hyperparameters and trains a SVM with these is also just a machine learning algorithm. Instead of only optimizing the internal parameters of the SVM (the support vectors) it also optimizes the hyperparameters.

Now you have two problems [that can be solved independently]:

Read Cross-validation misuse (reporting performance for the best hyperparameter value) to make sure that you don't mix them up.

A specific (probably not optimal) solution to the concrete problem of your question:

k = 5
loss_CV = zeros(k)
for i in 1:k 
    Xi_train, Xi_test = folds(X,k)[i]
    loss = zeros((3,3))
    for lambda in {0.1,0.2,0.5,1.0}
        for C in {10,100,1000}
            for j in 1:k
                Xj_train, Xj_test = folds(Xi_train,k)[j]
                model = SVM(Xj_train,lambda, C)
                loss[lambda,C] += test_error(model,Xj_test)
    lambda, C = argmax(loss)
    model = SVM(Xi_train,lambda, C)
    loss_CV += test_error(model,Xi_test)

loss = zeros((3,3))
for lambda in {0.1,0.2,0.5,1.0}
    for C in {10,100,1000}
        for j in 1:k
            Xj_train, Xj_test = folds(Xi_train,k)[j]
            model = SVM(Xj_train,lambda, C)
            loss[lambda,C] += test_error(model,Xj_test)
lambda, C = argmax(loss)
model = SVM(Xi_train,lambda, C)

Here, model would be your "best model" and loss_CV a "proper estimate of its generalization error" (although biased upward, but you cannot have the cake and eat it too).


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