Covering algorithms: Constructing rules

In “God’s Own Country” flickr photo by shared under a Creative Commons (BY-ND) license

An alternative approach to a decision tree is to take each class in turn and seek a way of covering all instances in it, at the same time excluding instances not in the class. This is called a covering approach because at each stage you identify a rule that “covers” some of the instances. By its very nature, this covering approach leads to a set of rules rather than to a decision tree.

A difference between the covering algorithms in comparison with recursive divide and conquer decision trees is that, in the multi class case, a decision tree split takes all classes into account, trying to maximize the purity of the split, whereas the rule-generating method concentrates on one class at a time, disregarding what happens to the other classes.

A simple covering algorithm

Covering algorithms operate by adding tests to the rule that is under construction, always striving to create a rule with maximum accuracy. In contrast, divide and-conquer algorithms operate by adding tests to the tree that is under construction, always striving to maximize the separation among the classes. Each of these involves finding an attribute to split on. But the criterion for the best attribute is different in each case. Whereas divide-and-conquer algorithms such as ID3 choose an attribute to maximize the information gain, the covering algorithm we will describe chooses an attribute–value pair to maximize the probability of the desired classification.


The PRISM method for constructing rules. It generates only correct or “perfect” rules. It measures the success of a rule by the accuracy formula p/t. Any rule with accuracy less than 100% is “incorrect” in that it assigns cases to the class in question that actually do not have that class.

The outer loop iterates over the classes, generating rules for each class in turn. Note that we reinitialize to the full set of examples each time round. Then we create rules for that class and remove the examples from the set until there are none of that class left.  Whenever we create a rule, start with an empty rule (which covers all the examples), and then restrict it by adding tests until it covers only examples of the desired class. At each stage choose the most promising test, that is, the one that maximizes the accuracy of  the rule. Finally, break ties by selecting the test with greatest coverage.

Methods such as PRISM can be described as separate-and-conquer algorithms: you identify a rule that covers many instances in the class (and excludes ones not in the class), separate out the covered instances because they are already taken care of by the rule, and continue the process on those that are left. This contrasts nicely with the divide-and-conquer approach of decision trees. The separate step greatly increases the efficiency of the method because the instance set continually shrinks as the operation proceeds.


Ian H. Witten, Eibe Frank. (1999). Data mining practical machine learning tools and techniques. Elsevier.


Author: enroblog

Computer science student at ITESM

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