How to Fine-Tune Sentence-BERT for Question Answering

A simple tutorial on using the sentence-transformers library to fine-tune Sentence-BERT for question matching

I’m Alison, an engineer at Capital One working on an internal question answering chatbot. At Capital One, one of our main modes of team communication is Slack, and there are hundreds of discussion channels dedicated to topics ranging from deployment software to corporate travel. Within each channel, associates ask and answer questions about its designated topic, but many of the same questions get asked repeatedly. To streamline this support process by allowing the most frequently-asked questions to be answered automatically, my team developed a Slack bot. This bot is currently used in more than 130 different internal Capital One Slack channels, many of which contain over 1,000 members.

When a team wishes to add our bot to their channel, they create a set of question-answer groups consisting of (1) multiple ways of phrasing a certain question, and (2) the question variants’ corresponding answer. In production, the bot uses these question-answer groups to fine-tune a question matching model that matches incoming Slack messages against known questions. When the bot receives a message in a Slack channel, it can reply with question recommendations or questions closely matching the incoming message. When a question recommendation is clicked on, the bot replies with the answer corresponding to it. Over time, the set of question-answer groups can be revised and the model fine-tuned again. The model we use for question matching is BERT (Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers), specifically Sentence-BERT.

In this article, I am going to share some tips on how to fine-tune Sentence-BERT for question matching, based on my experiences building this internal bot for Capital One.

What is Sentence-BERT?

Sentence-BERT is a word embedding model. Word embedding models are used to numerically represent language by transforming phrases, words, or word pieces (parts of words) into vectors. These models can be pre-trained on a large background corpus (dataset) and then later updated with a smaller corpus that is catered towards a specific domain or task. This process is known as fine-tuning.

The best word embedding models are able to represent text meaning, including context. For example, the vector representation of the two different words sleepy and tired will be very similar because they tend to appear in similar contexts. BERT, from which Sentence-BERT is derived, is one of these high-performing models. It was developed by Google researchers in 2018 and trained on over 11,000 books and the entirety of Wikipedia.

We chose Sentence-BERT specifically because it has been optimized for faster similarity computation on the individual sentence level, which makes it a great fit for our question matching task. As you can see in the tables below, Sentence-BERT performed very well on a variety of NLP tasks, most notably for our use case on Semantic Textual Similarity (STS).

First table to compare various language models on semantic textual similarity tasks, and second table to compare various language models on the SentEval toolkit

“Sentence-BERT: Sentence Embeddings using Siamese BERT-Networks” ( by Nils Reimers and Iryna Gurevych is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 (

Although it is possible to get meaningful results with just the pre-trained Sentence-BERT model, we saw a huge difference in accuracy between the pre-trained model and the model that we fine-tuned using just 7,000 new utterances (questions and answers) from our own Slack data. When evaluating the two models on 200 new test questions, question matching accuracy was 52% for the pre-trained model and 79% for the fine-tuned model. Accuracy increased further as we increased the amount of data used for fine-tuning.

Tutorial: Using Sentence-BERT for Question Matching

Say we want to use Sentence-BERT to determine which question-answer groups most closely match an incoming Slack message.

User and bot, where user asks a question and bot responds with two potential question matches

User Icon Source (, Robot Icon Source ( - (made by user Good Ware)

We use the sentence-transformers library, a Python framework for state-of-the-art sentence and text embeddings. We organize the data, fine-tune the model, and then use the final model for question matching. Let’s go through the steps of implementing this, starting with the dataset and ending with inference.

I. Data Example

Let’s say we want our bot to answer questions about a cooking blog. Our dataset has three question groups. Each group contains a few question variations and a corresponding answer. The more question variations, the better, but to keep this Sentence-BERT tutorial simple, we’ll use just a few.

# Questions Answers

What should I cook after work?

What are some one-pot meals I can cook?

What are some easy recipes to make?

For easy one-pot or weeknight recipes, please access this [link].

Do you have advice on how to get started with cooking?

How do I substitute things in recipes if I don't have all the right ingredients?

Beginner cooking tutorials can be accessed [here].

Where can I review your recipes?

I found a typo in one of your recipes.

I would love it if you added more dairy free recipes to the blog.

Did you try one of our recipes or cooking tutorials? [Here] are the ways to leave feedback and suggestions.

There is a many-to-one relationship between questions and their corresponding answers. We have three question-answer groups, each with two or three question variations. We want the model to learn the semantic relationships between the questions within each group. For example, if we take two example questions from group 1 and use the model to convert each one into a word embedding vector:

What are some one-pot meals I can cook? → v1

What are some easy recipes to make? → v2

We want v1 and v2 to be close to each other according to a distance metric like cosine distance. On the other hand, if we take a message from group 3, I found a typo in one of your recipes, and convert that to v3, we want v3 to be distant from both v1 and v2 according to the same metric.

II. Triplet Loss

During each iteration of the fine-tuning process, we select an anchor vector v1 to focus on. We then select a positive and a negative data point for comparison: v2 from the same group as v1 and v3 from a different group. We then minimize the distance between v1 and v2 (anchor and positive) while maximizing the distance between v1 and v3 (anchor and negative). The loss function for this optimization is known as triplet loss.

Two graphs, the first illustrating V1 and V2 with close cosine distance and the second illustrating V1 and V3 with far cosine distance

“Given a triplet of (anchor, positive, negative), the loss minimizes the distance between anchor and positive while it maximizes the distance between anchor and negative.” (Nils Reimers: loss = max(distance(anchor, positive) - distance(anchor, negative) + margin, 0).

III. Inputting Data to the Model

Let’s look at the final data that we input to the model for fine-tuning. We put this data into a TSV file where each row contains a group number followed by the question or answer text.

1.      What should I cook after work?

What are some one-pot meals I can cook?


What are some easy recipes to make?


For easy one-pot or weeknight recipes, please access this [link].

2.      Do you have advice on how to get started with cooking?
2.      How do I substitute things in recipes if I don't have all the right ingredients?
2.      Beginner cooking tutorials can be accessed [here].
3.      Where can I review your recipes?
3.      I found a typo in one of your recipes.
3.      Did you try one of our recipes or cooking tutorials? [Here] are the ways to leave feedback and suggestions.

Notice that we’ve included the answers at the end of each numbered group. While answers are typically structured differently than their associated questions, they often include a rephrasing of parts of their questions or other relevant information. We found that the model can learn from this semantic relationship. Including the answers in the data for fine-tuning, even when only the questions were used for comparison during the inference process, made a significant difference in question matching accuracy.

IV. Fine-tuning the Model

Now that our data is ready, we can go ahead and fine-tune the model. The below code is a toy example—I’ve had success using over 7,000 data points but have not tried using fewer, and you’ll need to tweak the batch size and number of epochs depending on how much data you have and what you find performs best. You may also want to use TripletEvaluator on test data during the fine-tuning process, but to keep this tutorial simple, I haven’t included it here.

    # sentence-transformers==1.0.4, torch==1.7.0.
import random
from collections import defaultdict
from sentence_transformers import SentenceTransformer, SentencesDataset
from sentence_transformers.losses import TripletLoss
from sentence_transformers.readers import LabelSentenceReader, InputExample
from import DataLoader

# Load pre-trained model - we are using the original Sentence-BERT for this example.
sbert_model = SentenceTransformer('bert-base-nli-stsb-mean-tokens')

# Set up data for fine-tuning 
sentence_reader = LabelSentenceReader(folder='~/tsv_files')
data_list = sentence_reader.get_examples(filename='recipe_bot_data.tsv')
triplets = triplets_from_labeled_dataset(input_examples=data_list)
finetune_data = SentencesDataset(examples=triplets, model=sbert_model)
finetune_dataloader = DataLoader(finetune_data, shuffle=True, batch_size=16)

# Initialize triplet loss
loss = TripletLoss(model=sbert_model)

# Fine-tune the model[(finetune_dataloader, loss)], epochs=4,output_path='bert-base-nli-stsb-mean-tokens-recipes')

V. Inference

Now that we have the new fine-tuned model, we can use it to transform any text. For our task of recommending questions to be clicked on in order to receive their associated answers, we use cosine distance to determine the semantic similarity between a Slack message and known questions.

For simplicity, we compare new questions to known questions and not to answers. However, we could also compare the new questions to answer options directly, especially since we’ve included the answers in the fine-tuning process.

In production, it’s useful to precompute question vectors and store them along with their corresponding answers. This allows us to quickly calculate the distance between an incoming message and existing questions, sort by distance, and then provide the answers corresponding to the questions closest to the incoming message. However, for the sake of simplicity, reading the pre-stored data from a database or file is not included in sample code below.

Let’s say we have just received the Slack message Hello chefs, I would like to get started with some easy recipes. Any suggestions? Here are the steps we take to produce relevant questions and answers.

1. Convert an incoming Slack message to a vector using our fine-tuned model.


    new_question = """Hello chefs, I would like to get started with some easy recipes. Any suggestions?"""
recipe_model = SentenceTransformer('bert-base-nli-stsb-mean-tokens-recipes')
encoded_question = recipe_model.encode([new_question])

2. Compare the resulting vector to all the precomputed question vectors in q_a_mappings, sort, and display the top n matches. In this example, we display two matches. We store question vectors (embeddings), question texts, and answers in three parallel lists of the same length. This way, associated embeddings, questions, and answers are all conveniently located at the same index of each list. The similarity computation code is inspired by this example.

    # scipy==1.5.4, numpy==1.19.5
from scipy import spatial
import numpy as np

q_a_mappings = {'Question Embedding': [[ ], [ ], [ ], …], 'Question Text': ['What should I cook after work?', 'What are some one-pot meals I can cook?', ...], 'Corresponding Answer': ['For easy one-pot or weeknight recipes, please access this [link].', 'For easy one-pot or weeknight recipes, please access this [link].', ...]}

question_embeddings = q_a_mappings['Question Embedding']
question_texts = q_a_mappings['Question Text']
answer_mappings = q_a_mappings['Corresponding Answer']

distances = spatial.distance.cdist(np.array(encoded_question), question_embeddings, 'cosine')[0]
results = zip(range(len(distances)), distances)
results = sorted(results, key=lambda x: x[1])

for idx, distance in results[0:2]: # just getting top 2
    print(f"\nMatch {idx+1}:")


    Match 1:
What are some easy recipes to make?
For easy one-pot or weeknight recipes, please access this [link].

Match 2:
Do you have advice on how to get started with cooking?
Beginner cooking tutorials can be accessed [here].

VI. Conclusion

And there you go! This was a simple intro on how to use the sentence-transformers library to fine-tune Sentence-BERT for question answering. Please check out the library documentation for many more ways of using it.

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Alison Chi, Data Engineer Senior Associate

Engineer at Capital One working on a chatbot. Passionate about all things computational linguistics and natural language processing.

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