Let's consider a process of building a classifier that uses Bayes decision rule. See Erin Mcleish tutorial for a nice introduction on Bayesian classifiers and decision rules. Given a feature vector x, we compute the a posteriori probability P(w|x) for every class and make the decision in favor of the class maximizing this value. By Bayes rule, the a posteriori probability can be expressed as

where P(w) is an a priori probability, p(x|w) is the state-conditional probability density function and p(x) can be regarded as a constant which does not influence the decision. When we talk about classifiers and decision rules, we usually regard the a priori probability and the state-conditional probability values as known or available. In practice, however, it is rarely the case. As there is no way we can obtain the exact values of these probabilities, we use samples to compute their estimates. While estimation of the a priori probabilities  P(w) does not usually present a problem (simple count of samples can be used), we'll often run into difficulties when trying to estimate the class-conditional densities due to insufficient number of samples. If we don't have any prior knowledge about class-conditional density distribution the task of its estimation is rather unfeasible. Fortunately, quite often we can make certain assumptions about the shape of the distributions, which will facilitate estimation process. It's quite common to assume that the class-conditional densities p(x|w) have normal distribution. In this case, the problem of estimating the probability densities is reduced  to the problem of estimating the parameters of normal distribution, namely the mean  and the covariance matrix . In case of d-dimensional feature vector, the is a d-dimensional vector and is a square matrix of dimension d. So the number of parameters to be estimated is d+d(d+1)/2.

Sometimes, we can facilitate the problem even further. There are case when the covariance matrix is known in advance. Therefore, only the mean is to be estimated.

There are two classical approaches to the parameter estimation problem. The first, maximum likelihood, treats the parameters as unknown but fixed values, and  the estimate is defined to be the values which maximize the probability of obtaining the samples observed. The second, Bayesian approach, is quite different. It views the parameters as random variables rather then fixed values. This tutorial is mostly dedicated to the Bayesian approach. Besides giving a presentation to the approach in general, we'll have a detailed look at the case when the class-conditional density is assumed to have normal distribution, when the covariance matrix is known and the mean is to be estimated.