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7 Tips for Fine TuningYour Machine Learning Model

Updated on
Feb 24, 20249 min read
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    Table of content

  • Introduction
  • What is Fine-Tuning?
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  • 7 Tips for Fine-Tuning Machine Learning Models 
  • Fine-Tuning Use Cases
  • Fine-Tuning Challenges
  • Conclusion
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  • Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)


Fine-tuning has emerged as a pivotal technique for adapting large pre-trained machine learning (ML) models to downstream tasks efficiently. 

Who wants to train models from scratch when they can fine tune it? As fine-tuning allows transferring learned knowledge from a foundation model into specialized variants using much fewer resources.  

According to recent surveys, over 65% of ML engineers are now utilizing fine-tuning even for common model implementations like named entity recognition and natural language understanding (Sierra Analytics, 2022). 

Fine-tuning implicitly transfers base knowledge from trained models comprising billions of parameters into more precise versions for given tasks through techniques like discriminator addition or weight refining. For instance, by fine-tuning just 2-5% of GPT-3’s parameters, researchers created more capable models like Codex for programming and Claude for customer service (Anthropic, 2023).   

Such fine-tuned foundation models can also facilitate low-risk testing of ML solutions by serving as a low-cost validation check before allocating heavy compute for customized training. Industry analysts predict over 90% of commercial ML applications will involve fine-tuning by 2025 given substantial efficiency gains (Forrester, 2022). 

So, it’s important to know the right tips for fine tuning your machine learning model. Continue reading, as in this blog you’ll find top 7 tips for it. 

What is Fine-Tuning?

Fine-tuning refers to additional training on an already pre-trained model where its weights are updated to improve performance on specific datasets or objectives beyond what it originally handled. Here, pre-trained means that the model foundation has already learnt generalized patterns on vast volumes of unlabeled multi-domain data during its initial development.

Think of pre-training as getting broad-based knowledge, similar to schooling. Fine-tuning models then specializes subset capability further for real-world jobs using much less effort, like workplace training programs.

For ML models, pre-trained foundations impart basic sensory, logical, linguistic and world knowledge through self-supervision at massive computer scale. Fine-tuning then molds distinct facets using human oversight and modest data. 

The level of modification during fine-tuning can vary across the model architecture - earlier layers preserve more fundamental learning while later ones specialize. Using already mature starting points accelerates downstream optimization. 

Most modern NLP, computer vision and speech models now rely on fine-tuning including BERT, OpenAI's GPT-3 series and beyond.

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7 Tips for Fine-Tuning Machine Learning Models 

The below tips can help machine learning teams maximize benefits when fine-tuning models:

1. Limit Amount of Fine-Tuning 

When fine-tuning models, only tweak a small percentage of parameters. For example, commonly only 2-10% of the pre-trained model's weights are updated to retain most of the generalized knowledge. 

Make minor architectural changes and experiment with learning rates to see balancing performance gains versus overfitting risks. If you end up retraining from scratch, you lose all the computational efficiencies of transfer learning.

2. Choose Appropriate Pre-Trained Model

Selecting the right foundation model is pivotal based on your training dataset scale, project requirements and domain knowledge to transfer. For vision tasks like classification and detection, popular pre-trained models include options like ResNet and VGGNet. 

For language, models like BERT and GPT contain billions of parameters encoding semantic and contextual understanding to finesse. Match the properties of the base model and select the largest relevant one for most robust transfer capabilities.

3. Leverage Little Labelled Data

One key advantage of fine-tuning is harnessing the powerful pretrained representations with much less labelled data requirements for supervision. As little as 100-1000 labelled examples can dramatically boost your ability to tailor models by amplifying the signals in your dataset. This ability to generalize with tiny samples also enables rapid iteration and experimentation across model architectures, loss objectives and hyperparameters. 

Think of fine-tuning as giving presets and nudges to the foundation rather than re-encoding all knowledge.

4. Split Data into Train/Val/Test Sets 

As best practice, split your labelled dataset into training, validation and held-out test sets. Update network weights on the train, check model skill on unseen validation samples and make architecture tweaks to optimize validation performance. The test split is untouched based on realistic model inference scenarios for unbiased evaluation. 

Fine-tuning often overfits when dev performance measures guide excessive specialization from training dynamics. The test set gives a running check on real-world utility.

5. Employ Partial Training 

Beyond updating only some higher-level weights of deep networks, techniques like partial training further restrict updates to either earlier or later layers according to the target problem. For example, higher layers capture specialized patterns so updating them captures task specificity. 

Lower layers encode general features like edges and curves so obtaining their pretrained encodings helps downstream, hence kept frozen. Such modularity in fine-tuning yields efficiency and performance gains while enabling reusable model libraries for organizations.

6. Gradual Unfreezing

Along with partial training, you can gradually unfreeze model layers sequentially over training epochs to balance stability and plasticity based on learning requirements. Initialize with lower layers frozen that constitute foundational encoding followed by task-specific upper release with differential learning rates, and combine downstream signals for complementary representations. 

Such gradual unfreezing allows you to harness both feature reuse from generalization as well as pattern specificity for your problem.

7. Multi-Task Fine-Tuning

Rather than fine-tune for particular objectives, you can update the model for multiple end tasks together spanning your anticipated application domains. By incorporating heterogeneous datasets and modeling needs like detection, classification and segmentation into joint training, multi-tasking enhances versatility for deployment while retaining substrate model semantics. This promotes wider applicability alongside handling scarce labeled data through shared internal representations that enable beneficial inductive biases for all included tasks to emerge.

Taken together, fine-tuning foundation models with techniques like weight sparcity, unfreezing schemes and multi-tasking can enable practitioners to unlock substantial efficiency gains while still delivering performant solutions tailored to precise industry applications. Carefully navigating the techniques can lead to fruitful model versioning pipelines leveraging transfer learning as organizations seek to propel innovation through versatile, trustworthy AI systems built responsibly.

Fine-Tuning Use Cases

Here are some common business use cases taking advantage of fine-tuning for custom AI capabilities:

  • Search: Fine-tune large language models to better interpret and respond to user queries by exposing them to enterprise domain vocabulary and past logs. Boosts discovery.
  • Recommendation: Specialize catalog understanding with user browsing history and optimize purchase predictions using past transaction data. Enhances personalization.  
  • Classification: Adapt computer vision classifiers to new object categories relevant to unique inventory needs leveraging smaller labeled datasets. Cuts manual effort.
  • Forecasting: Augment generic time series models with related causal factors in an industry to derive more tailored projections leveraging less history. Narrow uncertainty.  
  • Content Moderation Policy Customization: Rapidly align model enforcement thresholds to nuanced, subjective definitions of policy violations within a platform by tuning on representative examples. Accelerates.  
  • Predictive Maintenance: Combines understanding of failure patterns across machinery with equipment data to identify issues specific to company assets. Lowers downtime risks.   

The above demonstrates only a subset of use cases - almost any AI workload likely benefits from some form of fine-tuning for higher capability, accuracy and trust.

Fine-Tuning Challenges

However, practitioners must also consider risks that could emerge or get amplified when fine-tuning models:

  • Overfitting on Low Diversity Data: Models may overly specialize on narrow datasets and lose versatility or fairness. Continuous auditing helps.
  • Data Errors Propagating New Biases: Fine-tuning could implicitly exacerbate issues around quality, noise or non-representative samples without transparency.
  • Handling Model Degradation: If updated irregularly, specialized tuning on stale snapshots hampers stability over retrains. But rebuilding continuously adds overheads. 
  • Optimization Difficulties: Estimating starting baselines, ideal topology changes, dataset sizes plus computing needs still involves much trial and error. Resource costs multiply.
  • Protection Against Attacks: More exposed parameters during fine-tuning open additional vulnerability surfaces to data manipulation or model theft. Robust governance is a must.  
  • Unclear Provenance Tracking: Rapid iterative tuning across models and versions heightens traceability challenges on operational fitness. Careful controls counter risks.

Responsible fine-tuning implementation requires considering these key factors holistically alongside performance metrics before and during deployments.

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Fine-tuning models enables organizations to tap into cutting-edge AI capabilities. They can do it without incurring massive compute or talent costs to train models themselves from scratch. 

By judiciously adapting versatile pre-trained foundations using modest customized datasets, one can rapidly build specialized solutions with higher accuracy. They can build numerous applications in search, recommendations, forecasting, content policy enforcement, predictive maintenance and more.

However, practitioners need to pay equal attention towards managing risks around overfitting, bias amplification, optimization difficulty, model degradation, security vulnerabilities and provenance tracking when implementing fine-tuning at scale. Methodical governance frameworks to track data sources, compare versions, monitor for deviation, enforce transparency and maintain consistent safeguards helps balance customization with robustness and trust.

These leading practices mentioned, coupled with continuous experimentation considering model size, datasets, compute budgets and deployment requirements helps strike the right fine-tuning balance for an ML project’s needs.

As accretion of massive labeled datasets in every domain becomes challenging over time, skillful fine-tuning unlocks immense potential in amplifying value from data that has already been generated in complementary areas. 

Handled responsibly, this technique may well be integral to democratizing access to AI’s transformational capabilities across the long tail of industries and use cases through this decade. `

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How transferable are updates from fine-tuning models on smaller datasets?

Updates showing consistent lift demonstrate transfer learning generalization. But category, data distributions, compute budgets, metrics and real-world variance determines impact potential case-by-case. Continuous audits help here.  

When would fine-tuning a pre-trained model perform worse than training from scratch?  

Extreme overfitting from paucity of data lacking diversity, outdated frozen architecture, inadequate hyperparameter optimization and instability inducing updates. Retraining openly outperforms when foundation limits are approached.

Can fine-tuning ever fully replace the need for model training from scratch?

Unlike fully - while boosting efficiency for mainstream needs, truly pioneering capability expansions still involves orchestrating training from scratch judiciously. Fine-tuning fuels rapid incremental enhancements over such heavy lifting. 

What are SATs and how do they help with fine-tuning?

SATs or Scale and Technique AGnostics help spot overfitting by testing models on unfamiliar data distributions outside training regimes. They provide diversity and constrain technique bias.

Does fine-tuning improve commercial model offerings automatically over time?  

Yes, techniques and datasets improve continuously but in opaque ways. User feedback and expanding industry usage helps drive incremental enhancements to balance customization, privacy, security and fairness. External audits foster trust.

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