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IB DP Computer Science Study Notes

5.3.2 Stack Algorithm Construction

Stacks are an integral data structure in computer science, offering a methodical way to store and manage data efficiently. This section explores how to construct algorithms using fundamental stack operations such as push, pop, and isEmpty. These operations are crucial in creating efficient algorithms for various practical applications, from simple data management to complex system operations.

Understanding Stack Operations

A deep understanding of core stack operations is essential in algorithm construction:


  • Purpose: This operation adds a new item to the top of the stack.
  • How It Works: When an item is pushed, it becomes the new top, with the previous top item moving down one position.
  • Real-World Analogy: Think of a stack of plates; each new plate is placed on top.


  • Purpose: Removes and returns the item at the top of the stack.
  • How It Works: The item at the top is removed, and the item directly beneath it becomes the new top.
  • Real-World Analogy: Removing the top plate from a stack to use it.


  • Purpose: Checks whether the stack contains any items.
  • Usage: This check is vital to avoid errors, such as trying to pop an item from an empty stack, which would result in a stack underflow.

Algorithm Techniques

Developing stack-based algorithms requires a solid grasp of how stack operations can efficiently manage data.

Algorithm Structure

  • Initialisation: Typically begins by confirming the stack is empty with ‘isEmpty’, setting up a clean slate for operations.
  • Data Processing: Consists of sequential pushing and popping of data based on the algorithm’s logic.
  • Conclusion: Often ends by either emptying the stack completely or extracting needed information from the stack items.

Efficiency and Error Handling

  • Error Prevention: Essential to check stack status (full or empty) before performing push or pop to prevent overflow and underflow errors.
  • Time Complexity: Push and pop operations have O(1) time complexity, making stacks efficient for certain types of algorithms.

Practical Applications

Stacks have a broad range of practical applications in both simple and complex computational tasks.

Data Management

  • Undo Operations: Common in applications like text editors, where each action is pushed onto a stack, and undoing an action simply pops it from the stack.
  • String Reversal: By pushing characters of a string into a stack and then popping them, one can easily reverse the string.

System Operations

  • Call Stack: In programming, function calls and returns are handled using a stack, known as a call stack.
  • Backtracking Algorithms: Such as in maze solving, where one might push possible paths onto a stack and pop them if a dead end is reached.

Algorithm Examples

To further understand how stacks can be employed, let’s delve into a couple of example algorithms.

Balancing Symbols

  • Problem: Ensuring symbols like parentheses and brackets are balanced in an expression.
  • Algorithm:
    • Push each opening symbol onto the stack.
    • For each closing symbol, pop from the stack and check if it matches the corresponding opening symbol.
    • If at any point the stack is empty when a closing symbol appears, or if there’s a mismatch, then the symbols are not balanced.
    • Finally, use ‘isEmpty’ to check if all symbols have been matched.

Postfix Expression Evaluation

  • Problem: Evaluating expressions written in postfix notation (e.g., ‘5 6 +’).
  • Algorithm:
    • Scan the expression from left to right.
    • Push operands (numbers) onto the stack.
    • When an operator is encountered, pop the required number of operands off the stack, apply the operator, and push the result back.
    • After the entire expression has been processed, the stack should have one element, which is the result.

Best Practices in Stack Algorithm Construction

Adhering to best practices is key for developing robust stack-based algorithms:

  • Defining Stack Capacity: Particularly in static stack implementations, it's crucial to define an appropriate size to prevent overflow.
  • Handling Edge Cases: Includes cases like inserting into a full stack or deleting from an empty one.
  • Choosing the Right Data Structure: While stacks are powerful, they are not always the optimal solution. Analyse the problem requirements carefully to determine if a stack is the most efficient choice.

Advanced Techniques

  • Memory Optimisation: For dynamic stack implementations, consider memory allocation and deallocation strategies to optimise performance.
  • Algorithmic Complexity: Be aware of the overall time and space complexity of your stack-based algorithms, and strive for efficiency.

By mastering these stack operations and understanding their practical applications, you can develop sophisticated algorithms to solve a range of computational problems. Continuous practice and exploring different problem scenarios are crucial for deepening your understanding and skills in using stacks in algorithm development.


While stacks are useful for certain scenarios, they have limitations compared to other data structures. The main disadvantage is that stacks operate on the LIFO principle, restricting access to the most recently added element. This makes them unsuitable for applications requiring access to elements in a different order (like FIFO in queues or random access in arrays). For example, in a queue, elements are processed in the order they're received, which is essential for tasks like printing or task scheduling. Additionally, the LIFO system can complicate navigation through the data if historical data access is needed. Arrays provide direct access to any element, making them more flexible for various operations but lacking the inherent discipline and simplicity of a stack for tasks like backtracking or expression evaluation.

A stack is considered dynamic because it can grow and shrink at runtime, adapting to the operational needs of an application. Unlike static data structures with fixed sizes, a stack's size changes with the push and pop operations. This dynamic nature has significant implications for memory management. For instance, in a statically allocated stack (using arrays), the size must be declared beforehand, which can lead to inefficient use of memory or overflow if the declared size is exceeded. Conversely, a dynamically allocated stack (using linked lists) can adjust its size as needed, optimising memory usage but adding overhead for memory allocation and deallocation. Thus, selecting between static and dynamic stacks hinges on understanding the balance between memory usage efficiency and operational flexibility.

Evaluating infix expressions (where operators are between operands, like ‘3 + 4’) directly using stacks is complex due to operator precedence and associativity rules. A stack algorithm typically converts infix expressions into postfix or prefix form before evaluation. However, theoretically, it's possible to evaluate an infix expression directly by using two stacks: one for operands and one for operators. The algorithm processes the expression from left to right, managing the stacks based on operator precedence. It's a more involved process than postfix evaluation and requires careful handling of the order and precedence of operators, making it less efficient and more error-prone compared to postfix or prefix evaluations.

A stack is pivotal in managing recursive algorithms, particularly for memory management and tracking function calls. In recursion, when a function calls itself, each call is added to the call stack with its parameters and return address. This stacking helps in remembering the point to return to after each call is resolved. The stack's LIFO nature means that the most recent function call is completed first. When a recursive call finishes, the stack pops it off, and the program control returns to the top of the stack. This sequence continues until the stack is empty, signalling the end of recursion. Managing recursion through a stack helps prevent issues like stack overflow and allows efficient handling of intermediate states and return values.

Avoiding stack overflow and underflow is crucial for robust algorithm construction. Overflow occurs when trying to push an element onto a full stack, while underflow happens when attempting to pop an element from an empty stack.

To avoid these conditions, follow these practices:

  • Initialise stacks with adequate size to ensure there's enough room for expected operations, particularly in static stacks. Dynamic stacks, though more flexible, should still be monitored for excessive growth.
  • Check before pop or push: Implement checks before each pop (to confirm the stack isn’t empty) and before each push (to ensure the stack isn’t full or has room for dynamic expansion).
  • Error Handling: Integrate error handling mechanisms to manage attempts to push onto a full stack or pop from an empty one. These can range from exception handling in programming to user notifications.
  • Resource Management: In cases of dynamic stacks, manage memory efficiently to accommodate growing or shrinking data needs, which helps in avoiding overflows.
  • Algorithm Optimisation: Analyse and optimise algorithms to use stack space efficiently. For recursive algorithms, consider alternatives like iterative solutions to reduce stack usage.

These strategies help in maintaining the integrity of stack operations and ensuring the smooth execution of algorithms.

Practice Questions

Consider a stack being used to check for balanced parentheses in an expression. Describe an algorithm to accomplish this.

The algorithm initialises an empty stack. It then iterates through each character of the expression. For each opening parenthesis '(', it pushes it onto the stack. When a closing parenthesis ')' is encountered, it checks if the stack is empty. If the stack is empty, the algorithm returns false, indicating an imbalance. If the stack is not empty, it pops from the stack. After completely processing the expression, if the stack is empty, it means the parentheses are balanced, and the algorithm returns true. If there are any remaining items in the stack, it returns false, indicating an imbalance. This algorithm efficiently uses the LIFO property of stacks to match each opening parenthesis with its corresponding closing counterpart.

Explain how a stack can be used to reverse a string. Include a description of the operations performed during this process.

In reversing a string using a stack, an excellent response would focus on the utilisation of stack operations: First, the algorithm creates an empty stack. It then iterates through each character of the input string. During this iteration, each character is pushed onto the stack. Since a stack follows the Last In, First Out (LIFO) principle, the last character of the string will be at the top of the stack. After the entire string has been pushed onto the stack, the algorithm then constructs a new string by popping characters from the stack until it is empty. Each popped character is appended to the new string in the order it's removed from the stack. This reverse order results in the original string being reversed. This method capitalises on the stack's LIFO nature to reverse the order of characters.

Alfie avatar
Written by: Alfie
Cambridge University - BA Maths

A Cambridge alumnus, Alfie is a qualified teacher, and specialises creating educational materials for Computer Science for high school students.

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