How to Avoid Underfitting in Machine Learning: Top Strategies You Need to Know

In the world of machine learning, achieving the right balance between underfitting and overfitting is crucial for building effective models. Underfitting occurs when a model is too simple to capture the underlying patterns in the data, leading to poor performance on both training and unseen data. This can be particularly frustrating, as it means the model isn’t learning enough from the data provided.

Fortunately, there are several strategies to avoid underfitting and ensure your model performs well. By understanding the causes and implementing the right techniques, data scientists can create models that generalize better and provide more accurate predictions. Let’s explore some practical tips to help you steer clear of underfitting and enhance your machine learning projects.

Understanding Underfitting in Machine Learning

Underfitting in machine learning occurs when a model is too simple to capture the underlying patterns in the data, leading to poor performance.

yeti ai featured image

What Is Underfitting?

Underfitting appears when a model fails to learn from the training data. This usually happens if the model lacks complexity. A classic example is attempting to fit a linear model to a non-linear dataset. The linear model cannot capture the underlying non-linear structure, resulting in high error rates. This issue often arises due to overly simplistic algorithms, insufficient training duration, or inadequate feature selection.

Signs of Underfitting

Several signs indicate a model is underfitting:

  • High Training Error: The model performs poorly even on the training dataset.
  • Low Variability: Predictions are too simplistic, ignoring evident patterns.
  • Similar Performance on Training and Validation Data: Both datasets show similarly poor performance, suggesting the model hasn’t learned adequately.

Detecting these signs helps in diagnosing and improving the model’s performance.

Strategies to Avoid Underfitting

Several strategies exist to prevent underfitting in machine learning models. These methods help ensure the model effectively captures the data’s underlying patterns.

Increasing Model Complexity

Model complexity can be increased by adding layers and neurons to neural networks or using more sophisticated algorithms. Complex models usually capture intricate data relationships. For instance, switching from linear regression to polynomial regression can help detect non-linear relationships in data. Complexity should be balanced to avoid overfitting.

Adding More Features

New features can aid the model in making better predictions. Engineers should identify relevant variables contributing to the target variable to enrich the dataset. For example, in a predictive model for house prices, adding features like neighborhood amenities or the year of construction could enhance its performance. Always ensure that these features provide new and useful information.

Reducing Regularization

Reducing regularization can mitigate underfitting by allowing the model more flexibility. When regularization terms like L1 and L2 are too high, they constrain the model, leading to simplified patterns. For example, adjusting the regularization parameter (λ) in ridge regression lets the model learn more complex relationships. Regularization should be carefully tuned using cross-validation.

Importance of Data Quality and Quantity

Quality and quantity of data significantly influence a machine learning model’s ability to generalize and avoid underfitting.

Gathering More Training Data

Increasing the amount of training data can help the model learn more comprehensive patterns. When a model has access to a larger dataset, it captures more variability and generalizes better to new, unseen data. For example, in image recognition tasks, augmenting the dataset with additional images or using techniques like data augmentation can prevent underfitting.

Enhancing Data Features

Enhancing data features improves the model’s capacity to learn relevant patterns. Feature engineering, which includes creating new features from the existing ones or transforming them, can introduce more useful information to the model. For instance, in a dataset containing dates, breaking down a date into day, month, and year might reveal seasonality trends that a single date column cannot capture. This enriched dataset helps the model better understand underlying relationships, reducing the chances of underfitting.

Implementing Cross-Validation

Cross-validation is essential to avoid underfitting in machine learning models. It provides a robust method to evaluate model performance and ensure generalization to unseen data.

Benefits of Cross-Validation

Cross-validation offers several key benefits:

  • Improved Model Performance: By using multiple subsets of data, cross-validation helps assess how well the model generalizes to an independent dataset, reducing the risk of underfitting.
  • Efficient Hyperparameter Tuning: Cross-validation allows the practitioner to fine-tune hyperparameters accurately, optimizing model performance without overfitting or underfitting.
  • Reduced Overfitting: While primarily used to prevent underfitting, it also helps mitigate overfitting by providing a more reliable estimate of model performance.
  • Better Use of Data: Instead of splitting the dataset into a single training and testing set, cross-validation maximizes data utilization, allowing more data for training purposes, thus enhancing model accuracy.

How to Apply Cross-Validation Techniques

Applying cross-validation techniques involves several steps:

  1. K-Fold Cross-Validation: Divide the dataset into k equally sized folds. Train the model on k-1 folds while reserving the last fold for validation. Repeat the process k times with different folds and average the results.
  2. Stratified K-Fold Cross-Validation: Use this technique for imbalanced datasets. It ensures each fold has a representative distribution of the classes, maintaining the overall class balance.
  3. Leave-One-Out Cross-Validation (LOOCV): Use this method for small datasets. Consider each data point as a single validation set while all other points form the training set. Though computationally intensive, it provides an unbiased and thorough evaluation.
  4. Time Series Cross-Validation: Modify k-fold cross-validation for time series data. Use a sliding window approach where models train on past data and validate on future data, maintaining temporal integrity.

By effectively employing cross-validation techniques, machine learning practitioners can enhance model robustness, ensuring it performs reliably on unseen data.


Avoiding underfitting in machine learning requires a careful balance of model complexity and data utilization. By gathering more data and engaging in feature engineering, one can significantly enhance model performance. Cross-validation techniques like K-Fold and Stratified K-Fold Cross-Validation play a crucial role in fine-tuning hyperparameters and ensuring the model performs well on unseen data. Implementing these strategies helps create robust models that generalize effectively, providing reliable results in various applications.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between underfitting and overfitting in machine learning?

Underfitting occurs when a model is too simple to capture the underlying pattern of the data, while overfitting happens when a model becomes too complex and captures noise in the data as if it were a pattern. Both can lead to poor performance on new, unseen data.

How can I prevent underfitting in my machine learning model?

To prevent underfitting, you can increase model complexity, add more relevant features, gather more training data, and adequately tune model hyperparameters. Feature engineering and using advanced algorithms can also help.

What is cross-validation and why is it important?

Cross-validation is a technique used to assess the performance of machine learning models by training and testing the model on different subsets of data. It is important as it helps to ensure the model generalizes well to unseen data, reducing the risk of overfitting or underfitting.

What are some common cross-validation techniques?

Common cross-validation techniques include K-Fold Cross-Validation, Stratified K-Fold Cross-Validation, Leave-One-Out Cross-Validation, and Time Series Cross-Validation. Each method has its own advantages and use cases, depending on the nature of the data and model.

How does K-Fold Cross-Validation work?

K-Fold Cross-Validation involves splitting the dataset into ‘k’ equally sized folds. The model is trained on ‘k-1’ folds and tested on the remaining fold. This process repeats ‘k’ times, with each fold being used as the test set once. The results are averaged to give a final performance estimate.

What is the advantage of using Stratified K-Fold Cross-Validation?

Stratified K-Fold Cross-Validation ensures that each fold has nearly the same proportion of different classes as the original dataset. This is particularly useful for imbalanced datasets, providing more reliable performance estimates and better model validation.

When should I use Leave-One-Out Cross-Validation?

Leave-One-Out Cross-Validation is suitable for small datasets. It involves using a single observation as the test set and the remaining observations as the training set. This process is repeated for each observation, providing a thorough validation but can be computationally expensive for large datasets.

How does Time Series Cross-Validation work?

Time Series Cross-Validation is designed for time-dependent data. It involves creating multiple training and test sets by gradually increasing the training window while ensuring the training data precedes the test data. This method accounts for temporal dependencies and provides a realistic performance estimate for time series models.

Scroll to Top