How to Develop Algorithmic Thinking in DSA?

Algorithmic Thinking has recently become a buzzword among programmers. It is a method for solving problems based on a clear definition of steps: logically and repeatedly. This could help us understand several problem-solving strategies.

Two key skills are essential for solving coding problems in programming:

  1. Identifying and designing an efficient solution approach
  2. Converting the solution approach into the correct code

Some programmers may struggle with the first skill, which involves using algorithmic thinking to develop a solution. In interviews, some employers may be more interested in how a candidate approaches a problem than the actual implementation of the solution. Therefore, demonstrating expertise in algorithmic thinking and applying problem-solving strategies can be a way to impress a potential employer. The critical question is: How do we develop algorithmic thinking independently from learning programming? There are several ways of it! Let's explore.

Algorithmic Thinking via Solving Puzzles

Solving algorithmic puzzles is a useful and enjoyable activity for developing algorithmic thinking skills. It allows us to approach coding problems more abstractly and analytically. Practising these types of puzzles can improve our ability to break down complex problems and develop logical solutions. This can be especially helpful when faced with real-world coding challenges.

For example, we can learn several problem-solving strategies using puzzles:

  • Decrease and conquer (Josephus problem)
  • Divide and conquer (Finding a fake among eight coins)
  • Dynamic programming (Egg dropping puzzle)
  • Backtracking (8-queen puzzle)
  • Greedy approach (Fractional knapsack problem)
  • String manipulation (Fizz buzz problem)
  • Mathematical approach (The water jug puzzle)

Here are some more examples of such types of puzzles:

Puzzle based on the properties of numbers theory

Bulbs in a circle puzzle

Puzzle based on properties of graph

The Icosian game puzzle

Puzzle based on incremental approach

Rectangle disection puzzle

Puzzle based on graph-based transformation

Chessboard transformation puzzle

Puzzle based on dynamic programming

Finding maximum sum puzzle

Puzzle based on incremental approach

Square build up puzzle

Puzzle based on idea of backtracking

Eight queen on a chessboard puzzle

Puzzle based on iterative elimination

Finding celebrity puzzle

Puzzle based on properties of the graph

The Konigberg bridge puzzle

Puzzle based on idea of elimination

Single elimination tournament puzzle

Puzzle based on idea of transformation

Row and column exchange puzzle

Puzzle based on mathematical counting

Mental arithmatic puzzle

Here are some essential ideas related to solving algorithmic puzzles:

  • Every puzzle has an input that defines a specific instance of the puzzle. This input can be either specific, such as being asked to find a false coin among eight coins using a balance, or general, where the puzzle can be applied to any number of coins (e.g., find a false coin among N coins with a balance).
  • When working on a specific instance of a puzzle, it's important to focus on the particular instance given to you. This is because other instances of the puzzle may not have the same solution, or may not have a solution at all.
  • Even if a puzzle is presented in its general form, it can be helpful to try solving a few small instances first. This can provide valuable insights and help you better understand the solution for the general case. By working on a few specific instances of the puzzle, you can get a feel for the approaches and strategies that might be effective for the general case.

Algorithmic Thinking via Practicing Steps of Problem-Solving

To solve any problem, it's important to follow a series of well-defined steps. Practicing these steps can help us save time and identify patterns that can be applied to multiple coding problems. By breaking down problems into smaller subproblems and following a logical process, we can more effectively find solutions to even the most complex challenges.

Step of problem-solving in data structure and algorithms

Step 1: Understanding the problem statement

To effectively solve a problem, it's important to clearly understand what is being asked. This involves drawing a visualization of the problem and asking critical questions such as:

  • Do we understand every word used in the problem?
  • What data or information is provided as input?
  • What data or results are requested as output?

In addition to these questions, it's important also to understand the computational and non-computational details of the problem, such as the data structures used, specific constraints on the input, and the input distribution.

Step 2: Selecting concepts and solution strategies based on experience

To solve a problem, it's important to carefully analyze the problem description and make predictions about the concepts and approaches necessary to solve it. Consider questions such as:

  • Will we need to use all of the information provided in the problem?
  • Can we eliminate any unnecessary information?
  • Have we solved any similar problems in the past? If so, how can we use that experience to our advantage?

Identifying concepts and algorithms used to solve similar problems can save a lot of time and effort.

Step 3: Formulation of a solution strategy and pseudocode

To solve a problem, it can be helpful to first explore a hand-written approach by going through several examples and developing a general step-by-step strategy. This process involves carefully thinking about each step and identifying common actions to all examples. Two types of thinking are particularly important at this stage:

  • Iterative thinking: Solving the problem incrementally by building a partial solution.
  • Recursive thinking: Solving the problem using smaller sub-problems.

It can be helpful to describe the operations needed to transform the given input into the desired output on paper. From there, you can write out the steps in simple English and translate them into pseudocode or a flowchart. This can help clarify the logic and make it easier to write the final code.

Step 4: Correct Programming Implementation

Once you have developed a pseudocode solution, you can move on to implementing it in a programming language such as C++, Java, or Python. During this process, it's important to carefully select programming elements that will help create efficient and effective code. This may include elements such as a solution function, helper functions, loops, base cases for recursive code, and variables such as local variables, global variables, and pointers.

It's also important to pay attention to memory management, pre-processing, and other details that can impact the efficiency and correctness of the code. Remember to follow a good coding style to make your code easy to read and understand.

Step 5: Verifying correctness and optimizing further

Once you have implemented your solution in code, it's important to test it for bugs, analyze its time and space complexity, and think about ways to optimize it further. Here are some ideas that can be helpful at this stage:

  • Manually trace the input-output pattern by performing a hand trace, or by drawing a plot to describe the behavior of variables or critical steps defined in the solution.
  • Identify input cases that cause the algorithm to produce incorrect output. If there is an error or bug, identify and correct the steps responsible for it. Make sure the solution handles all boundary cases.
  • Analyze the efficiency of the solution by counting the total number of operations with respect to the input size.
  • Try to optimize the solution by identifying key details of the problem and attempting a different problem-solving approach. Keep optimizing the solution further until there is no further possibility.
  • Sometimes, it is also possible to optimize the solution code by reducing intermediate steps in the pseudocode.

Here are some popular coding questions to practice the steps of problem-solving. These questions can be solved using four or more approaches.

Algorithmic Thinking via Understanding Real-life Applications

Many applications use efficient problem-solving strategies to deliver a great user experience and performance. Understanding these strategies is an important step in developing algorithmic thinking. Some examples include:

  • Caching strategies such as LRU (Least Recently Used) and LFU (Least Frequently Used) cache.
  • Scheduling strategies such as round-robin scheduling and priority scheduling.
  • Hashing strategies that can be used for tasks such as hash-based load balancing, data encryption in cryptography, symbol table creation in a compiler, and spelling checks.
  • Sorting strategies including comparison-based sorting and linear time sorting.

Enjoy learning, Enjoy thinking!

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