Why Doesn't My Model Work? Unveiling the Pitfalls and Solutions for Machine Learning Models



Machine learning models often fail to perform well on real-world data despite appearing to work during training. This problem is widespread and stems primarily from overfitting, which leads to issues in translating model predictions to real-world scenarios. By understanding common pitfalls such as misleading data, hidden variables, spurious correlations, and improper evaluation metrics, we can develop more robust models. In this blog, we will delve deeper into these issues and provide actionable solutions to ensure that your models generalize well to unseen data.

Overfitting and Misleading Data

One of the primary reasons why machine learning models fail is overfitting. Overfitting occurs when a model learns the noise in the training data rather than the underlying pattern. This can happen for several reasons, most notably due to misleading data. Misleading data can include hidden variables that do not have a real relationship with the target labels but still influence model training. For instance, during the Covid-19 pandemic, many models were trained on datasets with overlapping records and mislabeled samples. These models ended up predicting posture instead of the disease due to hidden variables such as body orientation in chest imaging datasets.

Spurious Correlations

Spurious correlations are another significant issue that can prevent a model from generalizing well to real-world data. Spurious correlations occur when models learn irrelevant patterns in the data. An infamous example is the tank problem, where a model identified weather patterns instead of identifying tanks. Distinguishing between genuine predictive features and spurious correlations can be challenging but is crucial for developing robust models.

Human-Labeled Data and Bias

Human-labeled data can introduce biases and mistakes, leading to model inaccuracies. This issue is prevalent in datasets like MNIST and CIFAR, where even small mislabeling rates can significantly affect model performance. Ensuring high-quality, unbiased labeling is essential for model success. However, this is easier said than done and requires a rigorous validation process.

Data Leakage

Data leakage is another common problem that can significantly affect model performance. Data leakage occurs when information from the test set inadvertently influences the training process. This can happen through improper preprocessing steps or iterative development, where the same test set is utilized multiple times. For example, many datasets used in time series forecasting, such as stock prices, are particularly vulnerable to look-ahead bias, where future data influences model predictions. Pre-term birth prediction models also suffered from data leakage, where data augmentation led to augmented samples leaking into the test set, inflating performance metrics.

Inappropriate Evaluation Metrics

Choosing inappropriate evaluation metrics can also mislead model performance. For instance, using accuracy with imbalanced datasets can give a false sense of model performance. For time series forecasting, using metrics without a clear scale or appropriate baselines can result in misleading outcomes. It's essential to use a portfolio of metrics to get a comprehensive view of a model's performance and failure modes. Resampling methods such as cross-validation can mitigate some risks but introduce others, like data leaks during preprocessing steps.

Challenges in Deep Learning Models

Deep learning models present additional challenges, such as ensuring that pre-trained models for feature extraction do not intersect with data used for final model evaluation. Using composite models can complicate the process, especially when dealing with large and complex datasets. Ensuring no data overlap occurs requires meticulous planning and validation.

Using Formal Checklists and Experiment Management Tools

To avoid these pitfalls, employing formal checklists like the REFORMS checklist can be invaluable. REFORMS guides researchers through potential issues in the machine learning pipeline. Experiment tracking frameworks such as MLFlow or MLOps tools can also help manage the machine learning workflow and identify possible errors. These tools provide a structured approach to model development, ensuring that all aspects of the process are rigorously checked.

Healthy Skepticism and Validation

A healthy skepticism and careful validation of model outputs, metrics, and processes are crucial for developing models that genuinely generalize well to unseen data. Always question if the model's performance metrics genuinely reflect its ability to perform well on real-world data.

Specific Steps to Ensure Hidden Variables Do Not Influence Model Training

Avoiding the influence of hidden variables involves several targeted steps. First, it is essential to analyze the dataset thoroughly to identify any potential hidden variables that could influence the target labels. Techniques such as correlation analysis and feature importance scoring can help identify these hidden variables. Secondly, using domain knowledge to filter out irrelevant features is crucial. Lastly, employing robust validation techniques, including cross-validation and hold-out validation sets, can help ensure that the model generalizes well to unseen data.

Differentiating Between Spurious Correlations and Genuinely Predictive Features

Differentiating between spurious correlations and genuinely predictive features involves rigorous validation and experimentation. One approach is to use feature importance techniques like SHAP (SHapley Additive exPlanations) values to understand the contribution of each feature to the model's predictions. Additionally, creating multiple models with different combinations of features and comparing their performance can help identify genuinely predictive features. Employing cross-validation techniques also provides a more reliable estimate of a feature's predictive power.

Practical Examples of Employing the REFORMS Checklist

The REFORMS checklist can be incredibly useful during the model development process. For example, during data preprocessing, the checklist can help ensure that no information from the test set leaks into the training set. During model training, it can help verify that the data augmentation steps do not introduce biases or leak test set information. Finally, during model evaluation, the REFORMS checklist can ensure that appropriate metrics are used and that the model's performance is thoroughly validated using multiple validation techniques.


Machine learning models often face several pitfalls that can prevent them from performing well on real-world data. From overfitting to spurious correlations and data leakage, these challenges require careful consideration and rigorous validation. By employing techniques such as thorough dataset analysis, robust validation methods, and formal checklists like REFORMS, we can develop models that genuinely generalize well to unseen data. Additionally, using experiment management tools like MLFlow can help streamline the model development process and ensure that potential errors are identified and addressed promptly. In the end, a healthy skepticism and continuous validation are crucial for developing robust machine learning models.