What is an Epoch?

In terms of artificial neural networks, an epoch refers to one cycle through the full training dataset. Usually, training a neural network takes more than a few epochs. In other words, if we feed a neural network the training data for more than one epoch in different patterns, we hope for a better generalization when given a new "unseen" input (test data). An epoch is often mixed up with an iteration. Iterations is the number of batches or steps through partitioned packets of the training data, needed to complete one epoch.  Heuristically, one motivation is that (especially for large but finite training sets) it gives the network a chance to see the previous data to readjust the model parameters so that the model is not biased towards the last few data points during training.  

Be aware that there is no guarantee a network will converge or "get better" by letting it learn the data for multiple epochs. It is an art in machine learning to decide the number of epochs sufficient for a network.

In parallel, when we apply this to other areas of machine learning such as reinforcement learning, we see that an agent may not take the same route to complete the same task. This is because the agent is learning which decisions to make and trying to understand the consequences of such action(s). With a neural network, the goal of the model is generally to classify or generate material which is right or wrong. Thus, an epoch for an experimental agent performing many actions for a single task may vary from an epoch for an agent trying to perform a single action for many tasks of the same nature.  In reinforcement learning terminology, this is more typically referred to as an episode.

Some Statistics

Given the complexity and variability of data in real world problems, it may take hundreds to thousands of epochs to get some sensible accuracy on test data. Also, the term epoch varies in definition according to the problem at hand.


As a specific example of an epoch in reinforcement learning, let's consider traveling from point A to B in a city. Now, we can take multiple routes to reach B and the task is to drive from A to B a hundred times. Consider an epoch to be any route taken from a set of available routes. An iteration on the other hand describes the specifics of the route like which turns, how many stops, etc.  In the reinforcement learning terminology, an iteration is often called an action.