Hyperparameter Tuning For Machine Learning: All You Need to Know
Landing on the best possible combinations of hyperparameters is one of the most important, as well as confusing, choices we could be faced with when developing a machine learning model. Even the most seasoned experts would agree that the algorithms and processes involved in choosing the best hyperparameters are highly complex. At the same time, they’re absolutely vital to get right.
Hyperparameters are the section of parameters that a user predefines to control the learning process. Their values are set before the learning process begins and help the machine learning model achieve the best performance on a particular task.
Hyperparameters are toplevel parameters. Their values are set by the machine learning engineer before the learning algorithm begins training the model. They are used by the learning algorithm while it is still learning but are not a part of the resulting model. The trained model parameters that emerge after learning eventually become the model.
In short, hyperparameters are vital to creating the best model to predict a certain task. They are set before hand, that is, before building the model on the training data.
But before we understand how hyperparameters can improve the performance of a classifier or regression model, it’s necessary first to get a grasp of all the concepts involved. Let’s start with a basic tutorial.
For a detailed tutorial and step by step code implementations on hyperparameter optimization for machine learning, check out our course Hyperparameter Optimization for Machine Learning.
Parameter Vs. Hyperparameter
The terms parameter and hyperparameter may sound similar but are actually very different in machine learning terms. It can be quite confusing to understand the differences between these terms for a beginner. Maybe this break up will help:
Model parameters are critical to machine learning algorithms. They are usually internal to the machine learning model, and their values can be estimated from a dataset. They make up the actual pieces of the neural network, or the linear regression or the decision tree, and are required by the model when making predictions. A common example could be the weights within a neural network. Usually, those are determined by the algorithm as a result of training.
Some common examples of parameters include:

The coefficients (or weights) of linear and logistic regression models

Weights and biases of a neural network

The cluster centroids in clustering

The point of partition at each node in a decision tree
Hyperparameters, on the other hand, are explicitly specified parameters that control the training process as a whole. They are parameters that cannot be learned from the regular training process and must be fixed before the process even begins. They express essential properties of the model, such as complexity or the learning rate.
Some common examples of hyperparameters include:

Learning rate in optimization algorithms (for example, gradient descent)

Choice of the optimization algorithm

The number of hidden layers in a deep neural network

The dropout rate or the activation functions in a neural network

Number of iterations (epochs) in training a neural network

The regularization penalty in a linear model (Lasso vs Ridge)

The depth of the decision tree

The number of decision trees in a random forest

The criterion to evaluate the splitting of samples at each node (for example Gini or entropy)
Differences Between Parameters and Hyperparameters:
Now that we’ve gone through the meaning of both words in machine learning terms let’s take a look at some of the key distinctions that set them apart.

While model parameters are essential for making predictions, model hyperparameters are necessary for optimizing the model

Parameters are specified or estimated during the actual training of the model, while hyperparameters are usually set before the beginning of the training

Parameters are usually learned and set by the model, while hyperparameters are generally set manually by a machine learning engineer, or some sort of (additional) optimization method

Parameters are internal to the model, while hyperparameters are external

The value of a parameter can be estimated by optimization algorithms such as gradient descent, while the hyperparameter values are set by the process known as hyperparameter tuning
What is Hyperparameter Tuning?
Let’s leave parameters aside for now and understand more about hyperparameters. To find and select the optimal set of hyperparameters for a machine learning model, we follow a process known as hyperparameter tuning or hyperparameter optimization.
This process involves trying various combinations of different hyperparameter values, training a model for each combination, and comparing the performance of the models on a validation set or test set. Once these processes are complete, we can arrive at the set of hyperparameters that work best for the final model.
A hyperparameters search consists of:

Defining the hyperparameter space: the range of values to test for each hyperparameter

Finding a method for sampling candidate hyperparameters (for example, grid search)

A crossvalidation scheme (usually hyperparameters are tested with crossvalidation to obtain a measure of the dispersion error, obtained by assessing model performance over the data subset that was not used for model training)

A performance metric to minimize (or maximize), like for example the ROCAUC or the MSE
Hyperparameter tuning can be timeconsuming when done manually but can also be carried out by several automated methods. These methods offer alternative ways to sample the candidate hyperparameter combinations, and they include, among others:

Manual Search

Grid Search

Random Search

Bayesian Optimization
Whichever way you decide to go about it, hyperparameters are a crucial part of juicing out the best performance from a machine learning model.
In case you’re still unsure about how this works, check out this simple example:
One of the most common examples of a hyperparameter is the learning rate. The hyperparameter controls how much the model needs to change in response to the estimated error when the model’s weights are updated. It’s a crucial parameter for building a neural network.
If we were to now optimize this learning rate hyperparameter, how would we go about it? We could, for example, set this rate to 0.01 before the first training session. If we then determine that 0.01 is too high, we could set the learning rate to something like 0.003 for the next training session. Using similar logic, we would set the value higher in case it’s too low. This is hyperparameter tuning, explained in the simplest of terms.
Why is Hyperparameter Optimization Important?
Hyperparameter tuning is an essential part of controlling the machine learning model. Without it, the model parameters don’t produce the best results. This could mean higher errors for the model, or in other words, reduced performance, which is not what we want.
Hyperparameter tuning, thus, controls the behavior of a machine learning model. It ensures that the model gives us good, accurate results.
So how do you find the ideal set of hyperparameters? Read on to find out.
Methods to Find Hyperparameters
As we’ve now established, it’s absolutely essential to select the correct set of hyperparameters to train a machine learning model and improve its performance. The model parameters have to be tweaked to successfully carry out parameter tuning, which can be quite a timeconsuming process. Often, hyperparameter optimization can be carried out manually, but in other cases can be automated, which saves a lot of time. Let’s look at some of the most common methods used below.
Manual Search
One approach to finding the best set of hyperparameter values for an algorithm is to adjust them manually.
To manually tune hyperparameters, developers need to try a different combination of hyperparameters and select the model that performs the best. Manual hyperparameter optimization consists in looping through different hyperparameter values, and evaluating the model performance for each combination. We would then select the combination of hyperparameters that returns the best performing model.
The idea here is first to take big jumps in the hyperparameter values, followed by small jumps to focus on a specific value that makes the model perform better.
As an example, let’s say we are trying to optimize the n_estimators and max_depth for an XBGClassifier model. We would start comparing the performance of models with 10, 100 and 1000 estimators, and None, 1 or 4 of depth. And then, we would narrow down the search to those values that returned the bestperforming model so far. So, let’s say that the model with 100 estimators worked best; we would then narrow down the search to values between 100 and 200, and so on.
A manual search can be a long and tiresome process; however, it helps the data scientist get a better feeling and understanding of how the hyperparameters affect the model’s performance, and for simpler models, it is very easy to find the best hyperparameters manually, without the need to go into more computationally expensive methods.
Grid Search
Grid Search is the most basic method for hyperparameter optimization. Once the machine learning engineer figures out which values of hyperparameters they want to assess, the grid search will compute all possible combinations of those values.
Back to the example of the XBGClassifier, if we want to evaluate the following values
for n_estimator: [10, 100, 500, 1000]
and for max_depth: [None, 1, 2, 3]
, a Grid Search
will create all possible combinations with these values (4x4=16 combinations), resulting in:
[10, None], [10, 1], [10, 2], [10, 3]
[100, None], [100, 1], [100, 2], [100, 3]
[500, None], [500, 1], [500, 2], [500, 3]
[1000, None], [1000, 1], [1000, 2], [1000, 3]
The search would then proceed to train 16 machine learning models with each of these combinations, determine the performance of each model, and select the combination of hyperparameter values that returns the best value for the performance metric.
Random Search
Unlike a Grid Search, which tries all combinations of hyperparameters, a Random Search runs the model through random hyperparameter combinations. In addition, unlike in Grid Search, in Random Search the data scientist defines distributions for each hyperparameter instead of specific values.
So for example, for the hyperparameter max_depth, we could define a uniform distribution constrained between 1 and 5. For the hyperparameter n_estimators we could define a uniform distribution between 10 and 1500. For a learning rate we could define a loguniform distribution between 0 and 1. For categorical hyperparameters like the method to evaluate the decrease in impurity, we would still need to define each value, for example Gini or entropy.
In Random Search, hyperparameter values will be sampled at random from these distributions. Given that, very often, similar values of hyperparameters return similarly performing models, it is not necessary to assess every possible value. Examining values at random will be more than enough to find the area or specific range of values that return the best performing models.
This decreases the time and complexity it takes to find the best hyperparameters, as well as the total number of combinations on which the models are trained. As a result, it’s usually the preferred model when compared to Grid Search.
The Random Search method also ensures that we don’t end up with a biased model that relies on value sets chosen arbitrarily by users, as is the case with a manual search.
Bayesian Hyperparameter Optimization
Bayesian Optimization aims to solve some of the drawbacks of Random Search. A Random Search may end up evaluating too many unsuitable combinations of hyperparameters, simply because it determines the combinations at random.
In Bayesian Optimization, the search is guided. Thus, the hyperparameter search would spend more time looking around those values that have already shown promise. Thus, it reduces the amount of time it takes to compute a large number of hyperparameter combinations. It is also automated.
When looking for the best hyperparameter combination in data science, we usually define what is called an objective function. This objective function depends on the machine learning model we want to train, the metric we want to optimize (for example, the accuracy), the training set and the hyperparameters. The objective function is black box. This means that it is not possible to know its shape or distribution. In Bayesian optimization, the function is “guessed” or modeled using Gaussian processes or Treestructured Parzen Estimators (TPE).
We then use a follow up function to determine the space with the most promising hyperparameter values. These functions are called acquisition functions, and among them we find the expected improvement (ei) or the probability of improvement (pi).
Grid Search and Random Search don’t take into account previous iterations’ results when choosing the next hyperparameter value. Bayesian optimization does. For this reason, it is considered to provide some of the best hyperparameters.
In bayesian Optimization, we first perform a Random Search sampling at random a few model hyperparameter combinations. After these iterations, Bayesian Optimization applies a probabilistic function to select the hyperparameter values that works best within the machine learning model. In following iterations, the search will be carried out, one set of values at a time, selecting from values close to those that were deemed to be the best.
While Grid Search and Random Search can run in parallel, this is, different hyperparameter combinations can be evaluated at the same time, in Bayesian Optimization, the hyperparameter values are examined in sequence. We need to know the performance of the first sets of hyperparameter to inform the search for the subsequent values.
Hence, in theory, Bayesian Optimization will take fewer iterations to find the best hyperparameters, but because it is sequential, the overall wall clock time may not be reduced. Thus, Bayesian optimization is suitable when searching for hyperparameter of computationally costly machine learning models, like deep neural networks, because overall, we end up training fewer models.
Python Tools For Hyperparameter Optimization
Now that you know the distinction between the hyperparameter tuning methods, you should have a better idea of which fits your machine learning model best. The next step, in this case, would be to use a tool to apply the different hyperparameter search algorithms. Several opensource Python tools are already available for this purpose, and each tool has its own pros and cons. Here are some of the most popular ones.
Scikitlearn
Scikitlearn is the goto Python library for machine learning, hosting a wide array of predictive algorithms. Scikitlearn is also the goto library to optimize the hyperparameters of its own algorithms.
Scikitlearn supports Grid Search and Random Search with crossvalidation through the GridSearchCV and RandomizedSearchCV. Scikitlearn also offers support for multifidelity hyperparameter optimization through successive halving, which he have not covered in this tutorial.
The entire Scikitlearn package provides a range of machine learningrelated modules that can be applied with minimum effort. It comes with builtin with tasks that allow you to carry out any activity —from preprocessing to using the sklearn.model_selection module to select the best hyperparameters.
Scikitlearn, and other similar packages for hyperparameter tuning, such as scikitoptimize and scikithyperband, have a consistent interface across many implemented classes, providing a massive benefit to data scientists. Built on top of NumPy and SciPy it also provides tools for data analysis and data mining, making it one of the engineers’ favorite packages.
Scikitoptimize
Scikitoptimize is built on top of Scikitlearn, and it extends its functionality by supporting Sequential modelbased optimization in Python, that is, Bayesian Optimization. Through the class BayesianSearchCV, we can set up Bayesian optimization using Gaussian processes or Random forests to model the objective function, just as we would do with the GridSearchCV and RandomizedSearchCV from Scikitlearn.
Scikitoptimize also provides functions outofthebox to produce visualizations of the hyperparameter search, and better understand how the different hyperparameter values affect the model performance.
Optuna
Optuna is a Python library that’s best suited for automated hyperparameter optimization. It supports different hyperparameter search algorithms, such as Grid Search, Random Search, and Bayesian optimization using TreeStructured Parzen Estimators to compute optimal hyperparameters for a machine learning model.
The beauty of Optuna is that it has a definebyrun way of setting up the hyperparameter search function. This means, pretty much, that you can optimize with ease almost any hyperparameter from your desired machine learning model. You are not constrained by the design of the model or the API you are using to develop it. Hence, Optuna is, in my opinion, the most versatile hyperparameter search library, and I expect it to be the most widely used.
With Optuna, it’s possible to create your own hyperparameter tuning method class. Optuna also integrates with other popular packages, such as Scikitlearn, to give you a smooth user experience. It provides easy scalability with little or no changes to the code and is easy to install since it has few requirements. What more could you ask for?
Hyperopt
Hyperopt is another Python library that uses Bayesian optimization with TreeStructured Parzen Estimators (TPE) as well as other learning algorithms like Random Search and Simulated Annealing (SA).
The highlight of Hyperopt is that it allows you to create very complex parameter spaces as well as easily configure your search space. It was one of the first available libraries for hyperparameter optimization, hence the most popular back then and remaining very popular today as well.
Beyond that, Hyperopt allows you to pause the optimization process, save important information, and resume later. It also gives engineers the capability to distribute their computation over a cluster of machines, easing the workflow.
What’s more? It works with various support frameworks, including XGBoost, Pytorch, Tensorflow, and Keras.
On the downside, the documentation for Hyperopt is a bit slim.
Keras Tuner
Built with the Keras API, Keras Tuner is a scalable hyperparameter tuning framework that is simple and hasslefree to use. It allows you to easily configure your search space with a definebyrun syntax and uses search algorithms to find the best hyperparameter values for your models.
It comes with builtin Bayesian Optimization, Random Search, and Hyperband algorithms and is also designed to allow engineers to experiment with newer search algorithms. It can be used to get the best parameters for deep learning models and can promise some of the highest accuracies that can be achieved with the defined combinations.
Raytune
RayTune is another great Python library for hyperparameter tuning at any scale. It supports most machine learning frameworks (Scikitlearn, Keras, TensorFlow, Random Forest among others). It also runs some of the top learning algorithms such as Population Based Training, and Hyperband. It also integrates with a wide range of additional hyperparameter optimization tools.
When using RayTune, you can also scale a hyperparameter search from a single machine to a large distributed cluster without having to change your code. To top it off, it’s also very fast.
Conclusion
At this point, you may be a little overwhelmed with the amount of information that you’ve j ust read. Understanding such complex concepts takes time, effort, and several tutorials to master properly.
By now, however, you should at least have a better understanding of hyperparameter tuning, why it matters, the kinds of hyperparameters that you can optimize, the hyperparameter s earch methods that you can use, as well as some of the python tools that can help you out along the way.
Still confused?
That’s alright. This article is meant to be a brief introduction and by no means as informative as a college degree. But if you’re looking for a more detailed tutorial on how to use these tools and optimize your set of hyperparameters, that’ll give you all the expertise needed, check out our online course Hyperparameter Optimization for Machine Learning.
For a small fee, this course on hyperparameter optimization offers 10 hours of video tutorials, fun interactive activities like quizzes and assignments, a Q&A section, and lifetime access. By the end, you’ll be creating the bestperforming machine learning models, and have a number of techniques to select the best hyperparameters at your disposal.
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