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IB DP Computer Science Study Notes

5.3.5 Static and Dynamic Structures in Stacks and Queues

Understanding the implementation of stacks and queues through static and dynamic structures is a pivotal component in the field of data structures. This section provides a detailed examination of these structures, comparing and contrasting the use of arrays (static structures) and linked lists (dynamic structures) in implementing stacks and queues. This includes a deep dive into core operations such as push, pop, enqueue, dequeue, and the methods used to check for empty and full conditions in these structures.

Static Structures: Using Arrays

Characteristics of Array-Based Implementation

  • Fixed Size: Arrays are characterised by having a predetermined fixed size, meaning the number of elements they can hold is established at the array's creation. This constraint requires careful planning and understanding of the maximum number of elements expected.
  • Memory Allocation: In array implementations, memory allocation is static and occurs at compile time. This can lead to efficient memory usage if the maximum capacity of the array aligns closely with the actual number of elements it needs to store.
  • Index-Based Access: Arrays allow quick, direct access to their elements using indices, which enables efficient operations. This is particularly beneficial when implementing a stack's top operation or a queue's front operation.


  • Inflexibility: The inflexible nature of arrays can lead to two main issues: wasted space if the array's capacity is larger than necessary, and overflow if the array is too small for the data set. This lack of flexibility requires upfront knowledge of the data size and can result in inefficient memory use.
  • Reallocation Overhead: Expanding an array's size to accommodate more elements than its fixed size allows necessitates creating a new, larger array and transferring all elements from the old array to the new one. This process is not only time-consuming but also temporarily doubles the memory requirement during copying.

Dynamic Structures: Using Linked Lists

Characteristics of Linked List-Based Implementation

  • Flexible Size: Unlike arrays, the size of linked lists can be modified during runtime, allowing the structure to adapt to the number of elements it contains. This adaptability is crucial for applications where the size of the dataset fluctuates.
  • Memory Allocation: Memory for linked list elements (or nodes) is allocated dynamically during runtime, which provides flexibility. This approach is particularly advantageous when dealing with a data set whose size changes frequently or is unknown beforehand.


  • Memory Usage: Each node in a linked list not only stores the element but also the address of the next (and sometimes previous) node. This additional memory requirement for pointers results in higher overall memory consumption compared to array-based implementations.
  • Access Time: Unlike arrays, linked lists do not provide direct access to their elements. Accessing an element typically requires traversal from the head of the list, which can lead to slower access times, especially for elements located towards the middle or end of the list.

Operations in Stacks and Queues

Push and Enqueue Operations

  • Stack (Push): Adding an element to a stack (push operation) in an array involves placing the new element at the top of the stack, defined by the current highest index. This operation requires first checking for overflow – that is, ensuring the stack isn't already full. In the case of linked lists, a new node is created and added to the front of the list, updating the head pointer of the list.
  • Queue (Enqueue): Enqueuing in an array-based queue involves adding an element at the rear end and updating the rear index. Similar to the push operation in stacks, it is essential to check whether the queue is full before performing this operation. In a linked list implementation, enqueueing involves adding a new node at the end of the list and updating the rear pointer accordingly.

Pop and Dequeue Operations

  • Stack (Pop): The pop operation in an array-based stack involves simply decrementing the top index, effectively removing the top element. Before popping, it's crucial to check for underflow, ensuring the stack isn't already empty. In a linked list, popping involves removing the head node and reassigning the head pointer to the next node in the list.
  • Queue (Dequeue): Dequeuing from an array-based queue is conducted by incrementing the front index, thereby removing the front element. As with stacks, checking for underflow is essential to prevent errors. For a linked list, dequeueing involves deleting the front node and updating the head pointer of the list.

Empty/Full Condition Checks

  • Arrays: In array-based stacks and queues, it's necessary to explicitly check for empty and full conditions. A stack is considered empty if the top index is -1, and full if the top index is at the last position of the array. A queue is empty if its front index is -1 or the front is greater than the rear, and it's full when the rear index is at the last position of the array.
  • Linked Lists: For linked lists, the empty condition is straightforward; the list is empty if the head pointer is null. Unlike arrays, linked lists do not have a concept of being full unless the system runs out of memory, as they can continually allocate memory for new elements.

Comparative Analysis: Arrays vs Linked Lists

  • Performance: In terms of performance, arrays offer more rapid access to elements due to their index-based nature, making them suitable for applications where this quick access is critical. However, this comes at the cost of having to manage a fixed size. Linked lists provide the advantage of dynamic resizing and ease of insertion and deletion (especially at the beginning of the structure) but with slower element access times.
  • Memory Efficiency: When considering memory efficiency, arrays can be less efficient if not fully utilised or if frequent resizing is required. On the other hand, while linked lists are more memory-efficient in terms of resizing, each element requires extra memory for storing pointers.
  • Ease of Use and Complexity: Implementing stacks and queues in arrays can be conceptually simpler and requires managing fewer pointers and links. Linked lists, while more complex due to the handling of nodes and pointers, offer greater flexibility, particularly useful in scenarios where the volume of data is unpredictable or subject to frequent changes.

Selecting between arrays or linked lists for stacks and queues implementation depends heavily on the specific needs of the application, including considerations like memory availability, size predictability, and access requirements. Deeply understanding these structural differences is critical for making effective data structure choices, impacting both the efficiency and functionality of an application.


The extra memory usage in a linked list, attributed to storing pointers along with data, is justifiable in scenarios where the flexibility and dynamic resizing capabilities of linked lists outweigh the memory overhead. Such scenarios typically involve:

  1. Unknown or Highly Variable Data Sizes: When the number of elements to be stored cannot be predicted or varies significantly, linked lists are more suitable since they can grow or shrink dynamically without the need for costly array resizing operations.
  2. Frequent Insertions and Deletions: Linked lists excel in situations requiring frequent insertions and deletions, particularly at the beginning or in the middle of the structure, as these operations can be done quickly without the need to shift elements, as would be required in an array.
  3. Applications Requiring Efficient Concurrent Modifications: In environments like multi-threaded applications where several operations might need to occur simultaneously, the disconnected nature of linked lists (where each element is a separate object) reduces the risk of collision and contention, making it more suitable despite the extra memory per element.

Yes, arrays can be used to implement various forms of queues, including priority queues and circular queues. In a priority queue, elements are ordered based on their priority, not just by their arrival time. An array can store these elements and additional logic can be incorporated to ensure that elements are added or removed according to their priority, often requiring sorting or organising the array after each insertion or deletion. For circular queues, arrays are particularly efficient. A circular queue maximises the use of space in a fixed-sized array, treating it as if the end of the array wraps around to the front. This approach effectively utilises the array space and avoids the wastage common in linear queue implementations, especially in scenarios like buffer implementation in computer applications. However, the logic for managing the front and rear pointers becomes slightly more complex, as it needs to account for the wrap-around of the queue.

The choice between static (array-based) and dynamic (linked list-based) structures for stacks and queues significantly influences the complexity of algorithms that use these structures. In array-based implementations, the complexity mainly revolves around managing the fixed size of the array. Operations like push and enqueue in an array must consider the possibility of overflow, and resizing the array, if necessary, can be computationally expensive (O(n) complexity due to the need to copy elements). However, operations like accessing the top or front elements are O(1), given direct index access.

Conversely, linked list-based implementations shift the complexity towards managing pointers and dynamic memory. Operations like push and enqueue no longer need to consider overflow, and elements can be added or removed with O(1) complexity, assuming pointers to the relevant nodes (top for stacks, head and tail for queues) are maintained correctly. However, the O(1) complexity assumes ideal conditions; actual complexity might be affected by factors such as memory allocation/deallocation times and pointer manipulations. Thus, the choice of structure impacts not just the computational complexity but also practical performance factors like memory management and algorithmic overhead in managing these structures.

A linked list-based stack might be preferred in a multi-threaded environment due to its dynamic nature and flexibility in handling concurrent modifications. In multi-threading scenarios, different threads might be adding or removing elements simultaneously. Linked lists inherently support these concurrent operations better than arrays because they allow for easier and safer modification of the structure without the need for resizing or shifting multiple elements, as might be the case with array-based stacks. With each element being a separate object with its pointer, changes to one part of the linked list (like adding or removing a node) don't necessarily affect the entire structure, thus reducing the chance of conflicts between threads. Additionally, memory allocation and deallocation in dynamic structures like linked lists are typically more thread-safe, as they do not require modification of a centralised structure as arrays do.

Resizing arrays in an array-based stack implementation significantly impacts performance. Since arrays have a fixed size at creation, accommodating more elements than initially planned necessitates creating a larger array and copying the contents from the old array. This process is time-consuming and affects the performance of stack operations, especially when frequent resizing is required. Moreover, during the copying process, both the old and new arrays occupy memory, temporarily doubling the memory requirement. This is not only inefficient but can also be a critical bottleneck in memory-sensitive applications. Additionally, resizing disrupts the time complexity of push operation, changing it from O(1) (constant time) in an unchanging array to O(n) (linear time) due to the copy operation.

Practice Questions

Explain the differences in memory allocation and access time between array-based and linked list-based implementations of stacks and queues. Which structure would you recommend for a situation where frequent resizing of the data structure is required?

Array-based implementations of stacks and queues allocate memory statically, meaning the size is determined at compile time and remains fixed. This leads to faster access times due to direct indexing but poses limitations when it comes to resizing the structure. In contrast, linked list-based implementations allocate memory dynamically, providing flexibility in resizing as elements can be added or removed without redefining the size of the structure. This flexibility, however, results in slower access times since elements are not sequentially indexed and accessing an element typically involves traversing the list from the start.

For situations requiring frequent resizing, I recommend a linked list-based structure. The ability to add or remove elements dynamically without the need for reallocation or memory wastage (as in the case of underused or overflowed arrays) makes linked lists more suitable. This flexibility outweighs the slower access time, especially in scenarios where the number of elements is unpredictable or varies considerably.

Compare and contrast the operations of push/pop in a stack and enqueue/dequeue in a queue for both array and linked list implementations. Discuss any additional conditions that must be checked during these operations.

In both array and linked list implementations, the push operation in a stack adds an element to the top, while the pop operation removes the top element. The enqueue operation in a queue adds an element to the rear, and the dequeue operation removes the front element. In array-based structures, push and enqueue operations involve placing the element at the next available index, while pop and dequeue operations involve removing the element from the current index. These operations are index-based and require checking for overflow in push/enqueue (to ensure the array isn't full) and underflow in pop/dequeue (to confirm the array isn't empty).

In linked list-based structures, these operations involve updating pointers. Push and enqueue require creating a new node and adjusting pointers accordingly – the head pointer for push and both the head and tail pointers for enqueue. Pop and dequeue involve removing nodes and updating the head pointer in both cases. Unlike arrays, linked lists need only check for underflow since their size is dynamic. These operations, particularly in linked lists, demand careful pointer management to maintain the structure's integrity and avoid memory leaks or dangling pointers.

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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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