Chapter 3 Machine Learning in R
using the caret package


We will use the caret R package (Kuhn et al. 2021) (short for Classification And REgression Training) to carry out all our machine learning work in R. This package offers a range of tools and models for classification and regression machine learning problems. In fact, it offers over 200 different machine learning models from which to choose - don’t worry, we don’t expect you to use them all!

To illustrate an example application of the caret package, we will use the familiar penguins data set from the palmerpenguins R package (Horst, Hill, and Gorman 2020).

3.1 The caret package

To begin, we need to download, install and load the caret package in R. We can do this as follows:


We also load the palmerpenguins package (which should already be installed).


Suppose we would like to be able to predict the species of penguins in the Palmer archipelago, based on their other characteristics - namely their bill_length_mm, bill_depth_mm, flipper_length_mm, body_mass_g and sex measurements (for this example we will ignore the other variables in the penguins data set).

To make the following steps easier to follow, let’s create a data set containing only our feature and outcome variables (we will also remove missing values):

ml_penguins <- na.omit(penguins[, c(1,3:7)])

3.2 Data Visualisation

As we know by now, it is usually a good idea to visualise our data before conducting any analyses. Since we should be quite familiar with the penguins data set, we won’t spend too long on this topic here.

However, it is worthwhile to note that the caret package offers several options for visualising data, via the featurePlot function. Here we use this function (with the argument plot = "pairs") to produce a scatter plot matrix of the different feature variables we are using, coloured by penguin species.

Note that the featurePlot function’s plot argument can take several different options, such as density, box, and scatter - you might like to try these out.

featurePlot(x = ml_penguins[, -1], 
            y = ml_penguins$species, 
            plot = "pairs",
            auto.key = list(columns = 3))

We observe that it is difficult to distinguish between Adelie and Chinstrap penguins when modelling body_mass_g against flipper_length_mm or bill_depth_mm. But hopefully our machine learning model will be able to use the data for these variables to make accurate predictions.

3.3 Pre-Processing

The caret package contains several tools for pre-processing, which makes our job easier.

3.3.1 Dummy Variables

One assumption made by the package is that all the feature variable data are numeric. Since our sex variable is categorical rather than numeric, we will have to convert it to a numeric variable before continuing.

We can use the dummyVars function from the caret package to reclassify the penguin sex recordings as ‘dummy variables’ (i.e. variables that take values 0 or 1, depending on whether they are true or not). We will call this adjusted data set dummy_penguins.

When converting feature variables via the dummayVars function, we need to follow a specific approach:

  • First we assign the output of the dummyVars function to an object
  • Then we use that object, with the predict function, and the original data (specified via the newdata argument in the predict function), to update our data - remember to also include the outcome variable when updating your data!

Let’s take a look at how we do this in R:


dummy_penguins <- dummyVars(species ~ ., data = ml_penguins)
ml_penguins_updated <- as_tibble(predict(dummy_penguins, newdata = ml_penguins))
# remember to include the outcome variable too
ml_penguins_updated <- cbind(species = ml_penguins$species, ml_penguins_updated)
##   species bill_length_mm bill_depth_mm flipper_length_mm body_mass_g sex.female
## 1  Adelie           39.1          18.7               181        3750          0
## 2  Adelie           39.5          17.4               186        3800          1
## 3  Adelie           40.3          18.0               195        3250          1
## 4  Adelie           36.7          19.3               193        3450          1
## 5  Adelie           39.3          20.6               190        3650          0
## 6  Adelie           38.9          17.8               181        3625          1
##   sex.male
## 1        1
## 2        0
## 3        0
## 4        0
## 5        1
## 6        0

Note: We use the as_tibble function from the tibble package to restructure our data following the introduction of the dummyVars dummy variables. This is mainly because we would like to include the species variable with the labels Adelie, Chinstrap and Gentoo, rather than the numbers 1,2 and 3.

Now, instead of sex taking the values of female or male, this variable has been replaced by the dummy variables sex.female and sex.male. Notice that in the first row, we have a value of 0 for sex.female and a value of 1 for sex.male - in other words, the data in the first row is for a male penguin.

3.3.2 Identifying samples exerting excessive influence

Before we begin training our machine learning model, we should also run some checks to ensure the quality of our data is high.

For instance, we should check our data to ensure that:

    1. Our data is balanced, with only a small number of unique values (if any) for each feature variable
    1. There are no samples that might have an excessive influence on the model
    1. We do not have any highly correlated feature variables\(^\dagger\)

\(^\dagger\)Sometimes, a machine learning model will benefit from using training data which includes several highly correlated feature variables. Often however, correlated feature variables can be problematic. Zero and Near-Zero Variance Feature Variables

If any feature variables have zero or near-zero variance, this can cause problems when we subsequently split our data into training and validation data sets.

We can use the nearZeroVar function from the caret package to check a and b on our checklist. One of the arguments of this function is saveMetrics, which can be specified as either saveMetrics = F or saveMetrics = T.

If we use saveMetrics = F, a vector of the positions of the feature variables with zero or near-zero variance will be produced. If we use saveMetrics = T, a data frame with details about the variables will be produced.

Let’s consider both options, using our ml_penguins_updated data set.

saveMetrics = F option
nearZeroVar(ml_penguins_updated, saveMetrics = F)
## integer(0)

The output integer(0) means that none of the feature variables have been flagged as problematic, with respect to zero variance or near zero variance, which is encouraging. This means that none of the feature variables have only a single unique value.

saveMetrics = T option
nearZeroVar(ml_penguins_updated, saveMetrics = T)
##                   freqRatio percentUnique zeroVar   nzv
## species            1.226891     0.9009009   FALSE FALSE
## bill_length_mm     1.166667    48.9489489   FALSE FALSE
## bill_depth_mm      1.200000    23.7237237   FALSE FALSE
## flipper_length_mm  1.235294    16.2162162   FALSE FALSE
## body_mass_g        1.200000    27.9279279   FALSE FALSE
## sex.female         1.018182     0.6006006   FALSE FALSE
## sex.male           1.018182     0.6006006   FALSE FALSE

Here, we can see that as identified previously, none of the variables have zero or near zero variance (as shown in columns 3 and 4 of the output).

The freqRatio column computes the frequency of the most prevalent value recorded for that variable, divided by the frequency of the second most prevalent value. If we check this column, we see that all feature variables have a freqRatio value close to 1. This is good news, and means that we don’t have an unbalanced data set where one value is being recorded significantly more frequently than other values.

Finally, if we check the percentUnique column, we see the number of unique values recorded for each variable, divided by the total number of samples, and expressed as a percentage. If we only have a few unique values (i.e. the feature variable has near-zero variance) then the percentUnique value will be small. Therefore, higher values are considered better, but it is worth noting that as our data set increases in size, this percentage will naturally decrease.

Based on these results, we can see that none of the variables show concerning characteristics.

  • All the variables have freqRatio values close to 1.

  • The species, sex.male and sex.female variables have low percentUnique values, but this is to be expected for these types of variables (if they were continuous numeric variables, then this could be cause for concern). In other words, categorical variables, e.g. dummy variables, often have low percentUnique values. This is normal and a low percentUnique value for a categorical feature variable is not by itself sufficient reason to remove the feature variable. Cut-off Specifications

If we know beforehand that we have certain requirements for the freqRatio and percentUnique values, we can specify cut-off values using the arguments freqCut and uniqueCut respectively.

For example, if we considered feature variables with freqRatio scores higher than 1.23 and percentUnique scores lower than 20 to be exerting excessive influence, we could use the following code to filter out such feature variables:

nearZeroVar(ml_penguins_updated, saveMetrics = T, freqCut = 1.23, uniqueCut = 20)
##                   freqRatio percentUnique zeroVar   nzv
## species            1.226891     0.9009009   FALSE FALSE
## bill_length_mm     1.166667    48.9489489   FALSE FALSE
## bill_depth_mm      1.200000    23.7237237   FALSE FALSE
## flipper_length_mm  1.235294    16.2162162   FALSE  TRUE
## body_mass_g        1.200000    27.9279279   FALSE FALSE
## sex.female         1.018182     0.6006006   FALSE FALSE
## sex.male           1.018182     0.6006006   FALSE FALSE

Notice how the output in the nzv column has changed compared to the initial output - now flipper_length_mm has an nzv value of TRUE, due to our arbitrary cut-off specifications. Making conclusions based on cut-off values

In the event that a feature variable has both a high freqRatio value and a low percentUnique value, and both these values exceed the specified cut-offs, then it would be reasonable to remove this feature variable (assuming it is not a categorical variable).

If a feature variable has only one problematic value (e.g. a feature variable has a high freqRatio value that exceeds the specified cut-off, but also has a high percentUnique value which does not exceed the specified cut-off), then it is acceptable to retain this feature variable. Correlated feature variables

To address our final concern, namely correlated feature variables, we can use the findCorrelation function from the caret package.

Let’s go step-by-step through the process of removing a highly correlated feature variable from a data set.

To begin, we compute a correlation matrix for the numeric variables in our data:

base_cor <-  cor(ml_penguins_updated[, 2:5])

Note that we do not consider the dummy variables for sex in our assessment of correlated feature variables, since they are categorical variables, not numeric variables.

Next, we check for any extreme correlations close to 1 in magnitude:

extreme_cor <- sum(abs(base_cor[upper.tri(base_cor)]) > .999)
## [1] 0

There are none, which is a good result.

Next, we assess a summary of the correlation values:

##    Min. 1st Qu.  Median    Mean 3rd Qu.    Max. 
## -0.5778 -0.4112  0.1804  0.1395  0.6372  0.8730

We can see that in general everything is ok, although we do have a high max correlation value of 0.873.

Now it is time to use the findCorrelation function. It takes the base correlation matrix as its main input, and we use the cutoff argument to specify the maximum correlation value we are happy to allow between any pair of feature variables (the pair-wise correlation). For this example, we will set this limit to 0.8.

Please note this limit choice is arbitrary - we could have picked a more or less extreme limit.

findCorrelation(base_cor, cutoff = .8)
## [1] 3

The output of 3 denotes the column number in the base_cor matrix that should be removed. If we check this, we see that the third column is the flipper_length_mm variable, which has a 0.8729789 correlation with body_mass_g.

##                   bill_length_mm bill_depth_mm flipper_length_mm body_mass_g
## bill_length_mm         1.0000000    -0.2286256         0.6530956   0.5894511
## bill_depth_mm         -0.2286256     1.0000000        -0.5777917  -0.4720157
## flipper_length_mm      0.6530956    -0.5777917         1.0000000   0.8729789
## body_mass_g            0.5894511    -0.4720157         0.8729789   1.0000000

If we would now like to remove this feature variable from our data set, we need to be careful - column 3 in the base_cor matrix does not correspond to column 3 in our data set (since we assessed columns 2 to 5). Therefore we are actually removing column 4 here, as shown below:

ml_penguins_filtered <- ml_penguins_updated[, - 4] # flipper_length_mm has been removed

If we compute a new correlation matrix for the non-dummy feature variables in our filtered data set, we see that the highest magnitude correlation value is now 0.589451 - much better!

new_cor <- cor(ml_penguins_filtered[, 2:4])
##                bill_length_mm bill_depth_mm body_mass_g
## bill_length_mm      1.0000000    -0.2286256   0.5894511
## bill_depth_mm      -0.2286256     1.0000000  -0.4720157
## body_mass_g         0.5894511    -0.4720157   1.0000000
##     Min.  1st Qu.   Median     Mean  3rd Qu.     Max. 
## -0.47202 -0.35032 -0.22863 -0.03706  0.18041  0.58945

You might like to compare this correlation summary output with the initial summary output.

That concludes our section on pre-processing data. While there are other methods that we could perform, these are beyond the scope of this subject, and we have covered the main areas.

3.3.3 Data Splitting

Once we are happy with our data, we need to split it into training and validation data sets - we will call these ml_penguin_train and ml_penguin_validate respectively.

We can use the createDataPartition function from the caret package to intelligently split the data into these two sets. One benefit of using this function to split our data compared to simply using the sample function is that if our outcome variable is a factor (like species!) the random sampling employed by the createDataPartition function will occur within each class.

In other words, if we have a data set comprised roughly 50% Adelie penguin data, 20% Chinstrap data and 30% Gentoo data, the createDataPartition sampling will preserve this overall class distribution of 50/20/30.

Let’s take a look at how to use this function in R:

train_index <- createDataPartition(ml_penguins_filtered$species, 
                                   p = .8, # here p designates the split - 80/20
                                   list = FALSE, 
                                   times = 1) # times specifies how many splits to perform

Here we have split the training/validation data 80/20, via the argument p = 0.8. If we now take a quick look at our new object, we observe that:

head(train_index, n = 6)
##      Resample1
## [1,]         1
## [2,]         3
## [3,]         4
## [4,]         6
## [5,]         8
## [6,]        10

Note that the observations 1, 3, 4, 6, 8 and 10 will now be assigned to the ml_penguin_train training data, while observations 2, 5 and 9 will be assigned to the ml_penguin_validate validation data.

To carry out these assignments using our train_index object, we can use the following code:

ml_penguin_train <- ml_penguins_filtered[train_index, ]
ml_penguin_validate  <- ml_penguins_filtered[-train_index, ]

We are now ready to train our model!

In the following section, we introduce a selection of machine learning models, which we will apply in Computer Labs 10B and 11B.


Horst, Allison Marie, Alison Presmanes Hill, and Kristen B Gorman. 2020. Palmerpenguins: Palmer Archipelago (Antarctica) Penguin Data.
Kuhn, M. 2019. The Caret Package.
Kuhn, M., J. Wing, S. Weston, A. Williams, C. Keefer, A. Engelhardt, T. Cooper, et al. 2021. caret: Classification and Regression Training.

  1. “Evil Carrot” by Brettf is licensed under CC BY 2.0↩︎