A bit on base R vs tidyverse for new R learners

Had an excuse to go back down this rabbit hole.


Mark Isken


August 18, 2022

Recently I was working on a research project involving comparison of a bunch of predictive models (polynomial regression, natural cubic splines and a nonlinear power type model) and I figured I’d use caret. I’d used it before doing some similar work as, somewhat like sci-kit learn in the Python world, it provides a unified interface to a whole bunch of model families. This is even more important in R as models are spread across numerous packages and have widely varying interfaces or APIs. Unfortunately, the nls() function wasn’t supported as a model engine in caret and I didn’t immediately want to try creating a custom caret model, though this is definitely supported.

So, I figured this was a good excuse to poke around in the tidymodels world. As someone who teaches an intro R and Python for data analytics course, I was well aware of the tidyverse and use packages such as dplyr, tidyr, and readr in my course (yes, of course I cover ggplot but it does predate the tidyverse). However, I hadn’t really dug into the various tidymodels tools such as broom, parsnip, workflows, rsample, tune, yardstick or recipes. Spoiler alert - nls() isn’t supported in tidymodels either but that’s a topic I’ll address in a separate blog post in which I’ll share the details of my use of these tools in our research project.

For now, I want to mention that in exploring these tools, I ended up going down the rabbit hole of the base R vs tidyverse debate for new R learners. As a teacher, consultant and researcher/developer using R in very different ways, this is a fascinating debate and I learned much in digging into it again, as one must with the constant evolution of the R ecosystem. So, I’m really just using this post as a place to list some useful resources for others interested in this debate as well as adding my modest two cents.

The base R vs tidyverse debate

The tidyverse has become increasingly popular and with this popularity has come more scrutiny. In particular, there’s a healthy debate on whether new R users should first learn base R and then move on to the tidyverse or whether they should immediately be taught the tidyverse approach. There is much to be learned from this debate as people exchange ideas and different approaches to doing work with R. R is a rich and deep language and debates like this get into some nooks and crannies that many might never otherwise know about.

A few good resources on this debate include the following. Within these are links to numerous related articles, posts, tweets, and rants.

There are a few Reddit threads that address this topic including this one and this one. One of the comments I found in this thread makes the following argument:

In mathematics class they see y=f(x), which is essentially output <- processing(input). In flowcharts you’ll often see input -> processing() -> output. Take 10 minutes in a class to teach the students to mentally connect these two, and everything should be fine.

What I think, say, and do about this issue

I tell my students that it really isn’t an either-or question and in my course you will learn both base R and tidyverse approaches. At the end of the day, we use R to solve problems and the more tools and understanding you have to tackle those problems, the better off you will be. Here’s a hodge podge of thoughts on base R vs tidyverse for new R learners.

Vector thinking and R Studio / R Markdown

I start out my class with fundamental base R things such as vectors. The notion of operating on vectors is new to most and I stress that “thinking in vectors” will help them not only with learning R but also with Python. By covering vectors first we can use things like boolean masks, a technique that proves handy in base R as well as in the widely used Python packages, pandas and numpy.

y <- -5:4
 [1] -5 -4 -3 -2 -1  0  1  2  3  4
y[y > 0]
[1] 1 2 3 4

At the same time, students immediately start to learn their way around R Studio and R Markdown documents and R scripts. The R Studio IDE (and related things like R Markdown and now Quarto) transcend this debate. They are simply really useful tools for teaching, learning and using R.

Brackets and dollar signs

Right after the introduction to vectors comes the introduction to dataframes. I start them out with a solid intro to accessing rows and columns of dataframes through various combinations of the square brackets, vectors of column names, boolean vectors, numeric slices, and the $. I just cannot see learning R without learning these basic things. They are going to see brackets, slicing, boolean vectors, and various column accessor methods in Python, too.

Early wins and ggplot

For new R learners, I do believe there is great value in some “early wins”. Creating beautiful plots with ggplot2 (which I’ll just refer to as ggplot from now on) in our second R session is definitely a huge early win that helps motivate students to keep climbing the admittedly steep learning curve associated with R. I do show a few base plot examples but then shift quickly into learning about the Grammar of Graphics and ggplot. Most of my students come from an Excel heavy background (I also teach a spreadsheet based analytics course) and seeing faceted ggplots is an eye-opener for them (as they imagine trying to pull off the same thing in Excel).

dplyr, the pipe, and debugging

For my session on group by analysis, my teaching has changed over time. I used to begin with the base apply family of functions and then show plyr (and dplyr when it replaced plyr a few years later). Now, I jump right into dplyr but still include material on the apply approach. One reason for this is that many of our students have some SQL knowledge and they immediately grasp the similarities between dplyr and SQL - the code kinda feels the same. We do relatively simple examples focusing on the main dplyr verbs.

As for the pipe, I introduce it as just one approach to computing in R.

Example verbage from my class notes

The verb functions in dplyr share some traits that make them very amenable to being chained together.

  • each takes a data frame as its first argument
  • the rest of the function arguments specify what’s to be done
  • each returns a data frame

They can be used in standard ways as functions but can also be chained together using the %>% pipe operator from the magrittr package. We’ll do it both ways and you can decide for yourself when to use which approach. The pipe just takes whatever is the result of the left side is and pipes it into the first argument of whatever is on the right side.

For example, compare the following two approaches to computing Euclidean distance between two vectors:

# create two vectors and calculate Euclidian distance between them
x1 <- 1:5; x2 <- 2:6
[1] 2.236068
# chaining or piping method
(x1-x2)^2 %>% 
  sum() %>% 
[1] 2.236068

As for the pipe making it more difficult to debug complex dplyr statements, I agree. So, I also show that we can always create intermediate variables to aid in debugging. Also, it’s easy to highlight a portion of a complex dplyr statement and just run that portion. So, there are ways to help alleviate this concern. No one is forced to use the pipe. When I first encountered the pipe and some of the debugging difficulties associated with it, I realized that it wasn’t much different from the challenges associated with debugging complex SQL statements. Reading piped dplyr code is somewhat similar to reading SQL and is something that new R learners can do with practice and by starting out with standard intro SQLish dplyr statements.

The tidyverse

In my class, we never load the tidyverse library. Instead, we load individual libraries that we need. If you need stringr and dplyr, load stringr and dplyr. I don’t want my students to think of the tidyverse as this monolithic all or nothing thing they have to either totally buy in to or entirely reject. It’s a collection of opinionated, useful libraries. Use the bits you need. Or not.


So, far, all of the linear and logistic regression and tree-based modeling I do in my class is done with base R tools. Part of the reason for this is that tidymodels is relatively new, still undergoing API changes and not as widely used (afaik) as the base things like glm or randomForest. Furthermore, since this is an introductory class of R newbies, the benefits of the higher levels of abstraction provided by the tidymodels tools aren’t really needed and come at a cost of obscuring some modeling details.

Even when it comes to things like data partitioning, I start by showing simple approaches using sample() and row selection with a vector. Then we move on to use tools like caret::createDataPartition() instead of sample() and discuss the advantages of a sampling procedure that attempts to keep both data partitions somewhat similar with respect to the target variable.

pct_test <- 0.2
testrecs <- sample(nrow(Default), pct_test * nrow(Default))
default_test <- Default[testrecs,]
default_train <- Default[-testrecs,]  # Negative in front of vector means "not in"

I do bring it to the students attention that while some models conform to “standards” (such as having a predict method), there can be much variation in how different modeling packages expose their API and this can be a challenge. Tools like caret and its “successor”, tidymodels, can really help address this challenge. In the Python world, the popularity of scikit-learn is partially due to its consistent API and one stop shop approach to building predictive modeling.

In addition, tools like pipelines in sckit-learn or workflows in tidymodels can help modelers avoid things like leaking training data knowledge into the test data by properly coordinating data preprocessing and resampling schemes. However, I think there is significant value in first learning to do the steps “by hand” using base R (or Python) before the details get buried in higher level workflow abstractions. Let’s face it, many popular predictive modeling techniques such as neural networks and random forests are already opaque enough without the entire modeling workflow being made less transparent to the new R modeler.

Bottom line

I start with base R but with very early recognition of the tidyverse. Then the two are interleaved and compared and contrasted as we go. Multiple ways of doing things is par for the course in programming and R is no different. Students will find both base R and tidyverse approaches in places like StackOverflow. They need exposure to both. But…, if forced with the false choice of teaching one or the other in an R for newbies class, I’d teach base R - and I’d still teach ggplot because it predates the tidyverse (sticks fingers in ears, nah, nah, can’t hear you) and it’s just so good.



BibTeX citation:
  author = {Mark Isken},
  title = {A Bit on Base {R} Vs Tidyverse for New {R} Learners},
  date = {2022-08-18},
  langid = {en}
For attribution, please cite this work as:
Mark Isken. 2022. “A Bit on Base R Vs Tidyverse for New R Learners.” August 18, 2022.