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Spotlight Poster

Evaluating the Zero-shot Robustness of Instruction-tuned Language Models

Jiuding Sun · Chantal Shaib · Byron Wallace

Halle B #105
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Thu 9 May 1:45 a.m. PDT — 3:45 a.m. PDT


Instruction fine-tuning has recently emerged as a promising approach for improving the zero-shot capabilities of Large Language Models (LLMs) on new tasks. This technique has shown particular strength in improving the performance of modestly sized LLMs, sometimes inducing performance competitive with much larger model variants. In this paper, we ask two questions: (1) How sensitive are instruction-tuned models to the particular phrasings of instructions, and, (2) How can we make them more robust to such natural language variation? To answer the former, we collect a set of 319 instructions manually written by NLP practitioners for over 80 unique tasks included in widely used benchmarks, and we evaluate the variance and average performance of these instructions as compared to instruction phrasings observed during instruction fine-tuning. We find that using novel (unobserved) but appropriate instruction phrasings consistently degrades model performance, sometimes substantially so. Further, such natural instructions yield a wide variance in downstream performance, despite their semantic equivalence. Put another way, instruction-tuned models are not especially robust to instruction re-phrasings. We propose a simple method to mitigate this issue by introducing ``soft prompt'' embedding parameters and optimizing these to maximize the similarity between representations of semantically equivalent instructions. We show that this method consistently improves the robustness of instruction-tuned models.

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