Sequential Learning of Convolutional Features for Effective Text Classification

Sequential Learning of Convolutional Features
for Effective Text Classification

Avinash Madasu
Samsung R&D Institute, Bangalore
&Vijjini Anvesh Rao
Samsung R&D Institute, Bangalore

Text classification has been one of the major problems in natural language processing. With the advent of deep learning, convolutional neural network (CNN) has been a popular solution to this task. However, CNNs which were first proposed for images, face many crucial challenges in the context of text processing, namely in their elementary blocks: convolution filters and max pooling. These challenges have largely been overlooked by the most existing CNN models proposed for text classification. In this paper, we present an experimental study on the fundamental blocks of CNNs in text categorization. Based on this critique, we propose Sequential Convolutional Attentive Recurrent Network (SCARN). The proposed SCARN model utilizes both the advantages of recurrent and convolutional structures efficiently in comparison to previously proposed recurrent convolutional models. We test our model on different text classification datasets across tasks like sentiment analysis and question classification. Extensive experiments establish that SCARN outperforms other recurrent convolutional architectures with significantly less parameters. Furthermore, SCARN achieves better performance compared to equally large various deep CNN and LSTM architectures.

1 Introduction

Text classification is one of the major applications of Natural Language Processing (NLP). Text classification involves classifying a text segment into different predefined categories. Sentiment analysis of product reviews, language detection, topic classification of various news articles are some of the problem statements of text classification. Prior to the success of deep learning, text classification was dealt using lexicon based features. These primarily involve parts-of-speech (POS) tagging where verbs and adjectives are given more importance compared to other POS. Frequency based feature selection techniques like Bag-of-Words (BoW), Term frequency-Inverse document frequency (TF-IDF) have been used and the features are trained using machine learning classifiers like Logistic Regression (LR) or Naive Bayes (NB). These approaches provided strong baselines for text classification Wang and Manning (2012). However, sequential patterns and semantic structure between words play a crucial role in deciding the category of a text. Traditional lexicon approaches fail to capture such complexities. Since the success of deep learning, neural network architectures have outperformed traditional methods like BoW and count based feature selection techniques. Neural network architectures especially Convolutional Neural Networks (CNN) and Long Short Term Memory Hochreiter and Schmidhuber (1997) (LSTM) have achieved state-of-the-art results in text classification. Shallow CNN architectures Kim (2014); Madasu and Rao (2019a, b) achieved admirable results on text classification as well. Very deep CNN architectures were proposed based on character level features Zhang et al. (2015) and word level features Conneau et al. (2016) which significantly improved the performance in text classification. In image classification and object detection, previously proposed deep CNN architectures Szegedy et al. (2016) achieved state-of-the-art results. The effectiveness of deep CNNs can be very well explained where primary convolutional layers detect the edges of an object. As we go deeper, more complex features of an image are learnt. But in case of text, there hasn’t been much understanding behind their success. Popular CNN architectures use convolution with a fixed window size over the words in a sentence. However, a question arises whether sequential information is preserved using convolution across words. What will be the effect if word sequences are randomly shuffled and convolution is applied on them? In case of LSTM, random shuffling results in least performance as LSTMs rely on sequential learning and random ordering harms any such learning. Whereas, in case of a fixed window convolution applied across words, there is no strong evidence that it preserves sequential information. Previously proposed CNN architectures use max pooling operation across convolution outputs to capture most important features Kim (2014). This leads to another question, if the feature selected by max pooling will always be the most important feature of the input or otherwise.

To answer the above questions, we conduct a study of experiments about the effects of using fixed window convolution across words as discussed in Section 3.1. And the effects of using max pooling operation on convolution outputs are discussed in Section 3.2. Based on their critique, we propose a Sequential Convolutional Attentive Recurrent Network (SCARN) model for effective text classification. The proposed model relies on recurrent structures for preserving sequential information and convolution layers to learn task specific representations. In summary, the contributions of the paper are:

  • We propose a new recurrent convolutional model for text classification by discussing the shortcomings of max pooling operation and also the strength and weakness of convolution operation.

  • We evaluate the proposed model’s performance on seven benchmark text classification datasets. The results show that the proposed model achieves better results with lesser number of parameters than other recurrent convolutional architectures.

2 Related Work

2.1 Recurrent Convolutional Networks

Previous architectures proposed for text classification were entirely convolution or recurrent based. There have been limited but popular works on combining recurrent structures with convolutional structures. Lai et al. (2015) proposed a neural network (RCNN) model which combined recurrent and convolutional architectures. In their model each word is represented by a triplet of the word itself, its left and right context words, which are then trained sequentially using LSTM. Max pooling is then applied to capture the most important features of a sentence. Another attempt to combine recurrent and convolutional structures was made by \newcitelee2016sequential for sequential short-text classification. Their model uses LSTM to train short-texts and max pooling is applied on the outputs of all timesteps of LSTM to create a vector representation for each short-text. These architectures first use LSTM to train sequences and then max pooling operation is applied on its output. \newcitezhou2015c proposed a recurrent convolutional network (C-LSTM) where convolution is applied over windows of multiple pretrained word vectors (fixed window size) to obtain higher level representations. These features serve as input to an LSTM for learning sequential information.

(a) Original Embeddings
(b) Convolution Transformation
Figure 1: t-SNE projection of original embeddings and after convolution transformation

2.2 Attention Mechanism

Attention significantly improves the focusing on most meaningful information in the sentence. CNN and RNN architectures that were proposed with attention mechanism achieved superior performance to non-attention architectures. Attention originally proposed for machine translation Bahdanau et al. (2014) was applied for document classification Yang et al. (2016) as well. Several variants of attention mechanism have been proposed like global and local attention Luong et al. (2015) and self attention Lin et al. (2017). Attention has been applied to CNN blocks like pooling layers Santos et al. (2016) for discriminative model training. Recently, attention based architectures achieved state-of-art results in question answering Devlin et al. (2018).

3 Understanding Convolution and Max pooling

In this section we explore the working of CNNs in the context of natural language to better explain the intuition behind proposing SCARN. The key components of CNNs, namely convolution and max pooling strengths and weaknesses are discussed in this section.

3.1 Convolution operation

The convolution operation in the context of its application on word embeddings is discussed as follows.

What it doesn’t learn

Convolution operation can be explained as a weighted sum across timesteps. This may result in loss of sequential information. To illustrate our hypothesis, we conduct an experiment on the Rotten Tomatoes dataset Pang and Lee (2005). In this experiment we train a CNN with convolution being applied on words with the fixed window size varying from one to maximum sentence length. We repeat this experiment with randomly shuffling all the words in an input sentence (Random ordering), and with shuffling every two consecutive words as shown in this example “read book forget movie” to “book read movie forget” (Alternate shuffle). The results of this experiment are illustrated in Figure 2111Experiment on more datasets could be found in the Appendix B. Our observations in this experiment are the following:

  • CNNs fail to fully incorporate sequential information as performance on random ordering and correct ordering are marginally near each other. As evident in the figure, the performance with correct ordering on window size 7 is comparable to performance with random ordering on window size 1.

  • As window size increases, the difference between correct and incorrect orderings diminishes and finally converges when window size is complete sentence length. This indicates that the ability to capture sequential information by CNNs, decline with increasing window size.

Furthermore, we also note that while performance on random ordering is marginally less than correct ordering, it is still higher than other context blind algorithms like bag-of-words as shown in Table 1. This implies that while not fully exploiting sequential information, convolution filters still learn something valuable which we explore in next section.

What it learns

To understand what convolution filters do, we train a CNN with single window size on the SST2 dataset Socher et al. (2013) for sentiment classification. As the convolution acts over a single word, it has no ability to capture sequential information. Hence, irrespective of input sentence word order, words will always have same respective convolution output. Essentially, convolution layer here acts like an embedding transformation, where input embedding space is transformed into another space. To understand this new space we project the respective embeddings using t-SNE Maaten and Hinton (2008) and illustrate them in Figure 1. Here we make a distinction between the semantic knowledge of a word and the task specific knowledge of a word. As this experiment is done on dataset SST2, we refer to task specific knowledge as the sentiment knowledge of a word. Word embeddings222In this experiment GloVE word embeddings were used. are generally trained on huge domain generic data because of which they capture the general semantic information of the word. Figure 1a shows these word embeddings as they are in the original space. As we can see, semantically similar words cluster together. Figure 1b shows words after their convolutional transformation. Blue coloured words represent words with positive sentiment. Red with negative sentiment and green words are those which are semantically close to negative sentiment words. However, in the context of movie reviews, their sentiment value is close to positive sentiment words. From this experiment we observe:

  • The transformation of the green words between original and convoluted outputs, shows that the convolution layer is able to tune their input embeddings such that they are more closer to the positive sentiment cluster than to their original semantic cluster. For example, a word like “killer” in the original embedding space is very close to negative sentiment words like, “bad” and “awful”, especially if the word embeddings were produced on huge fact based datasets like Wikipedia or news datasets. However in the SST2 dataset, “killer” is often used to describe a movie very positively. Hence sequential learning on such transformed embeddings will be more effective than the original semantic embeddings.

  • Some words like “pretty” might be semantically closer to the positive sentiment words. However in the dataset, we find common occurrences of phrases like “pretty good” or “pretty bad”. The layer has hence transformed its position nearly equidistant to both the negative and positive clusters. In other words, convolution layer is able to robustly create a transformation which can handle any task specific noise.

Figure 2: Accuracy (y-axis) percentage on Rotten Tomatoes dataset with varying window size.

The above observations show the effectiveness of the convolution operation. This is because a single convolution filter output value captures a weighted summation over all the features of the original word embedding. This enables the network to learn more task appropriate features as many as the number of filters.

With the above points in mind, we observe that convolution operation does not fully exploit sequential information, especially on larger window sizes. However we do see their effectiveness in conforming the input embeddings to a representation specifically meaningful to the task. Hence, for sequential learning instead of relying on convolution, we use recurrent architectures in our proposed SCARN model.

Figure 3: Accuracy (y-axis) percentage on TREC and SST2 datasets with varying n for the Max pooling.

3.2 Max pooling operation: More doesn’t mean better

Max pooling operation in images identify the discriminative features from convolution outputs. However this does not relate the same way of selecting most relevant features from convoluted features in texts. To illustrate this, we perform an experiment using a CNN architecture based on architecture by \newcitekim2014convolutional popularly used in text classification. We define Max pooling as choosing highest value of all filters as opposed to first (=). By analyzing the performance distinctions on varying values of n, we make an attempt to assess whether maximum necessarily means task meaningful. The results are illustrated in Figure 3333Experiment on more datasets could be found in the Appendix B. The results show that when is increased the performance varies arbitrarily on all datasets. This shows that there is no apparent co-relation between magnitude of the values to importance for the task. Hence, this relationship does not stand strong for text based inputs.

4 Model

4.1 Overview

The proposed SCARN model architecture is shown in the Figure 4. Let be the vocabulary size considered and X represent embedding matrix where is a dimensional word vector. Vocabulary words contained in the pretrained embeddings are initialized to their respective embedding vectors and words that are not present are assigned 0’s. For each input text, a maximum length is considered. Zero padding is applied if the length of input text is less than . Hence, each sentence or paragraph is converted to I dimensional vector which is the input to SCARN model.

The model consists of two subnetworks: Convolution Recurrent subnetwork and Recurrent Attentive subnetwork. In the first subnetwork, convolution with single window size is applied on the input . Convolution filters learn the higher level representations from the input text. The output from convolution is trained sequentially using LSTM network. In the second subnetwork, the input is trained using LSTM. To better focus on most relevant words, attention mechanism is applied to the outputs of LSTM from every time step. Attention creates an alternate context vector for the input by choosing the most suitable words necessary for classification. The outputs from the first subnetwork and second subnetwork are concatenated and connected to the output layer through a dense connection.

4.2 Convolution Recurrent subnetwork

Let be represented as sequence of words = where represent the word in the input. A total of convolution filters are applied on each word of input. Let be the weight matrices of all filters. For each filter when applied on , outputs a new feature . Therefore, a new feature vector is obtained for each word after convolving with filters.


Similarly, the above procedure is repeated for all the words in the input to produce a feature vector .


where represents convolution operation and is the non-linear activation (ReLU). Applying convolution to individual words preserve the sequential information. Convolution learns the higher level representations for the input words. Each word will be transformed to a new representation pertinent to the task. The new feature representations are trained sequentially using LSTM.

Figure 4: SCARN Architecture

4.3 Recurrent Attentive subnetwork

In this subnetwork, the input word embeddings are trained using LSTM. All words in the input sentence are not equally important in predicting final output. Although, LSTM learns sequential information, selecting significant information is a key issue for text classification. For this purpose, we employ an attention layer on the top of LSTM outputs. Attention mechanism focuses on specific significant words and tries to construct alternate context vector by aggregating the word representations.

Figure 5: concat-SCARN architecture

5 Experiments

5.1 Datasets

We tested our model on standard benchmark datasets: Rotten-Tomatoes (RT) Pang and Lee (2005), Polarity V2.0 (Pol) Pang and Lee (2004), SST-2 Socher et al. (2013), Home and Kitchen reviews (AR) He and McAuley (2016), TREC Li and Roth (2002), IMDB Maas et al. (2011) and Subjectivity Objectivity (SO) Pang and Lee (2004). The statistics for the datasets are shown in Table 3

Linear BoW + LR 86.452 73.600 82.800 64.320 76.500 47.000 80.500
TFIDF + LR 78.740 72.000 84.000 63.237 77.250 49.200 80.340
Word Vector Avg Word Vectors + MLP 85.44 86.999 90 75.691 68.25 47.015 81.219
Paragraph2Vec + MLP 77.472 45 77.2 62.996 77.25 38.925 67.27
CNN Deep CNN 78.44 28.999 85.799 75.4 69.999 40.333 64.305
Char CNN 70.484 74.199 59 50 50.249 34.37 60.516
RNN LSTM 88.37 76.99 90.899 77.436 74.5 47.85 78.747
Bi-LSTM 88.69 75.8 91.399 76.594 77.499 51.569 79.242
Attention LSTM+Attention 88.35 77 89.7 76.895 77.75 50.568 80.01
concat-SCARN 88.88 78.8 89.8 77.858 75.75 51.569 80.06
RNN-CNN RCNN 86.607 79.6 91.1 78.098 78.25 48.026 80.395
C-LSTM 87.676 90.4 91.3 76.474 67 52.784 78.308
Our model SCARN 89.788 90.799 92.4 79.641 78.75 53.350 82.262
Table 1: Accuracy scores in percentage of all models on every dataset
Model No. of parameters
Small SCARN 68,425
Large SCARN 166,639
RCNN 180,601
C-LSTM 676,651
Table 2: Number of parameters for each model
Dataset Dataset size Train Dev Test Max Vocab size Classes
IMDB 50000 20000 5000 25000 30000 2
TREC 5952 4906 546 500 5000 6
SO 10000 8100 900 1000 30000 2
RT 10662 8100 900 1662 30000 2
Pol 2000 1280 320 400 30000 2
AR 121565 80000 20000 21565 30000 5
SST-2 9613 6920 872 1821 10000 2
Table 3: Summary Statistics of all datasets

5.2 Baselines

We compared our model to various text classification approaches444For lack of code, results are from our implementations.

BoW and TF-IDF + LR

Bag-of-words(BoW) and TF-IDF are strong baselines for text classification. BoW and TF-IDF features are extracted and softmax is applied on the top for classification.

Average Word Vectors + MLP

This baseline uses the average of word embeddings as features for the input text which are then trained using Multilayer perceptron (MLP).

Paragraph2Vec + MLP

Each input sentence is converted to a feature vector using Paragraph2vecLe and Mikolov (2014) which are then trained using Multilayer perceptron (MLP).

Deep CNN

This baseline is based on deep CNN architecture Conneau et al. (2016) with approximately matching number of parameters as our model.

Char CNN

For our comparison, we employed the Char CNN architecture Zhou et al. (2015) with less parameters compared to the original model, as the datasets used by them were considerably huge than ours.


We also offer a comparison with LSTM and Bi-LSTM architectures with a single hidden layer and approximately matching number of parameters as our model.

LSTM + Attention

In this baseline, attention mechanism is applied on the top of LSTM outputs across different time steps.


In this model, we concatenate the outputs from convolution layer as in SCARN, with input word embeddings at each time step. The concatenated outputs are trained using LSTM. Attention is applied on the top of this layer. Figure 5 shows the architecture of concat-SCARN model.


We compared our model to the RCNN model Lai et al. (2015) which uses max pooling for selecting the most appropriate features of a sentence.

Figure 6: Attention weights for some of the sentences from the SST2 dataset


We compared our model to C-LSTM model Zhou et al. (2015) which uses convolution over fixed window of words to learn higher level representations.

5.3 Implementation

Input and Training Details

We used google pretrained word vectors for C-LSTM555, as it was used in the original work. For all the other experiments which require embeddings, we use GloVe pretrained word vectors666 The size of a word embedding in this model is 300. For each dataset, a maximum sentence length is considered which is 30 for TREC, SO, RT, Pol, SST-2 datasets, 400 for IMDB and 100 for AR dataset.

We apply a dropout layer Srivastava et al. (2014) with a probability of 0.5 on the pretrained embeddings. We also apply dropout with a probability 0.5 on the dense layer that connects to output. We use Adam as the optimizer with a batch-size of 16 for small SCARN model and 50 for Large SCARN model. The initial learning rate is set to 0.0003. Training is done for 30 epochs.


We employ two different architectures of SCARN model since the datasets vary in size. For datasets TREC, SO, RT, Pol, SST-2 the number of convolution filters are 50. Number of LSTM cells considered for these datasets are 32. We call this architecture Small SCARN model. For datasets AR and IMDB, number of convolution filters are 100 and number of LSTM cells are 64. We call this architecture Large SCARN model. The comparison of number of parameters for each model is shown in Table 2. ReLU is used as the activation function in convolution layers. In the output layer, softmax is used for multi-class classification and sigmoid for binary.

6 Results and Discussion

Results of the experiments are tabulated in Table 1. We observe that, the proposed SCARN model outperforms linear and word vector based models, because of their inability to incorporate sequential information. We also compare our model to recurrent models like LSTM, Bidirectional-LSTM and find that SCARN outperforms them as these recurrent architectures even though learn sequential information, lack SCARN’s learning of task specific representations through convolution. Meanwhile, SCARN outperforms deep CNN and char CNN models, for their lack of learning sequential information the same way recurrent architectures can. When SCARN is compared to other recurrent convolutional architectures RCNN and C-LSTM, SCARN achieves significantly much better performance with lesser parameters as shown in Table 2. RCNN uses max pooling to capture the most important feature. However our discussions in Section 3.2 show max pooling’s choice of maximum may not necessitate importance. C-LSTM used fixed window convolution across words. But as seen in Section 3.1 fixed window convolution do not capture sequential information adequately. In SCARN model, we apply convolution across single word to learn task specific information, on which LSTM architecture is trained to capture contextual information.

(a) Mean
(b) Standard Deviation
Figure 7: Statistics of each feature in concatenation layer outputs on the IMDB dataset’s training set.

We observe that SCARN significantly outperforms concat-SCARN on all the datasets. We believe this is because in concat-SCARN, concatenation between input embeddings and convolution activations is done. However they belong to a very different distribution. In Figure 7, we show the average and standard deviation of outputs at the concatenation layer of concat-SCARN on IMDB dataset’s training set. As evident from the figure, we can make a stark distinction between the two concatenated sections as shown in the architecture of concat-SCARN in Figure 5. Because of the irregular distributions, the learning may become biased towards one of the segments. Furthermore, attempts to address this issue by using batch normalization layers may not be a good idea, as normalizing word embedding inputs may spoil the semantic concepts underlying them. Hence, in our SCARN model, subnetworks are trained differently, and final activations are concatenated as illustrated in SCARN’s architecture in Figure 4. As long as both subnetworks’ outputs come from similar activation function, they will have similar distributions as well and hence they won’t suffer from the same problem as concat-SCARN.

Effectiveness of attention has also been illustrated in Figure 6, where attention weights have been shown in a heat map, with darker colors corresponding to a higher weightage. We observe that SCARN is able to effectively utilize attention weights to focus on most contributing input words.

7 Conclusion

In this paper we present a critical study and viewpoint of CNNs, which even though are popularly used in text classification, details of it are often overlooked. We find that convolutional filters learn particularly in the context of sequential information. But at the same time, they are good at learning higher level task-relevant features. On the other hand, we find max pooling to be very arbitrary in selection of crucial features and hence contributing minimal to the overall task. We also find that the problems with input concatenation, as it imbalances the representations because of difference in nature of distributions. Based on our study we proposed SCARN, for effectively utilizing convolution and recurrent features for text classification. Our model beats other popular ways of combining recurrent and convolutional architectures with quite less number of parameters on various benchmark datasets. Our model also outperforms CNN and RNN architectures with equally deep or same number of parameters.


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(a) RT
(b) IMDB
(c) SO
Figure 8: Max pooling experiments on RT, IMDB and SO Datasets
Figure 9: Percentage distribution of max pooling outputs for misclassified samples from SST2 dataset

Appendix A Max Pooling: missclassified examples

For this experiment, after convolution over single word, we perform max pooling across filter outputs and attempt to discern the max pooling outputs. We identify which input words’ convolution outputs were chosen by the max pooling operation. These distributions illustrated in Figure 9 are presented on some misclassified examples from the SST2 dataset. We see that often words that should have been contributing most to the overall sentiment value, have very less or minimal share. For example in the sentence, “it is also stupider”, we see “is” having the near majority share, even though it tells nothing about the sentiment of the sentence. At the same time in “rainy days and movies about the disintegration of families always get me down”, “disintegration” has almost no share despite being an important word for evaluating sentiment.

Appendix B Experiments on more datasets

Figure 8 shows the Max pooling experiment explained in Section 3.2 on other datasets, namely RT, IMDB and SO. We still find that there is no co-relation between importance for task and magnitude of the values. Figure 10 and Figure 11 show the Ordering experiment from Section 3.1 on SO and SST2 datasets respectively. As evident from the figures, the proposed hypotheses stay sound on other datasets as well.

Figure 10: Accuracy (y-axis) percentage on SO dataset with varying window size.
Figure 11: Accuracy (y-axis) percentage on SST2 dataset with varying window size.
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