TutorChase logo
IB DP Computer Science Study Notes

5.5.1 Logical Operations in Trees

Trees, with their hierarchical data structuring capability, are integral to many areas of computer science, particularly in organising and managing data. In this section, we're exploring the nuanced operational logic behind binary and non-binary trees, focusing on the intricacies of node management, tree traversal, and balancing. An additional emphasis is placed on understanding how recursive thinking connects with and streamlines the complexities of tree operations.

Understanding Tree Structures

Trees in computer science are non-linear data structures consisting of nodes connected by edges, ideally suited for representing hierarchies.

Binary Trees

  • A binary tree is a tree data structure where each node has at most two children, commonly referred to as the left child and the right child.
  • The root of a binary tree is the topmost node, with every other node connected by a direct edge from a parent node.
  • A leaf is a node that does not have any children.

Non-Binary Trees

  • Non-binary trees (also known as multiway trees) allow more than two children per node. This flexibility supports more complex hierarchical structures than the simpler binary tree.
  • Examples: A ternary tree, where each node has up to three children, or a general tree where there’s no upper limit on the number of children a node can have.

Node Management in Trees

Effective node management is central to the efficiency of tree-based data structures, affecting how quickly and effectively data can be stored, retrieved, and updated.

Node Addition

  • In a binary search tree (BST), when adding a new node, we start at the root and recursively compare the new key with the current key, descending left or right as dictated by the binary search property (left child < parent < right child).
  • In non-binary trees, the location of new nodes might follow different rules, often specific to the type of tree and its intended use.

Node Deletion

  • Deleting a node in binary trees, especially BSTs, requires consideration of several cases:
    • Deleting a leaf node is straightforward; it can be removed directly.
    • Deleting a node with one child: we connect the child with the node’s parent.
    • Deleting a node with two children: generally, we find the node's in-order successor (or predecessor) to maintain the correct structure and values.

Node Modification

  • Changing a node's value might necessitate a reorganisation of the tree structure, particularly in BSTs, to preserve the binary search property.

Tree Traversal Techniques

Traversal is a fundamental concept for navigating through trees and performing operations like search, insertion, and display.

Preorder Traversal (Root, Left, Right)

  • Visit the root node.
  • Recursively traverse the left subtree.
  • Recursively traverse the right subtree.

Inorder Traversal (Left, Root, Right)

  • Recursively traverse the left subtree.
  • Visit the root node.
  • Recursively traverse the right subtree.
  • Particularly useful in BSTs, as it results in elements being visited in ascending order.

Postorder Traversal (Left, Right, Root)

  • Recursively traverse the left subtree.
  • Recursively traverse the right subtree.
  • Visit the root node.
  • This method is useful for deleting trees and freeing up space, as a node can be safely removed after its children have been dealt with.

Balancing Trees

Balancing is critical in maintaining efficient search and update times. An imbalanced tree can lead to poor performance, essentially degenerating into a linked list in the worst case.

Binary Trees

  • Balancing a binary tree: Techniques like AVL (Adelson-Velsky and Landis) trees or Red-Black trees reorganise the tree upon insertions and deletions to maintain a balance, ensuring that the tree's height stays logarithmic relative to the number of nodes.
  • Rotations, like single or double rotations, are fundamental operations in maintaining this balance.

Non-Binary Trees

  • In non-binary trees, balancing might involve more complex redistributions, as these trees have more general structures. Strategies might include splitting or merging nodes based on certain criteria, like the node's degree (the number of children it has).

Recursive Thinking in Tree Operations

Recursion is a powerful concept in computer science, particularly apt for operations in tree structures due to their inherent recursive nature. Each tree can be thought of as consisting of a root and two smaller trees (the left and right subtrees in a binary tree), making recursion a natural fit for many tree operations.

Recursive Traversal

  • Recursive approaches simplify tree traversals. For example, in preorder traversal, the function to traverse a tree is called recursively for the left subtree and then for the right subtree.

Recursion in Additions and Deletions

  • When adding or deleting nodes, especially in BSTs, recursive algorithms can simplify the process by handling each node according to simple, consistent rules, thus breaking down complex tree restructuring into simpler, more manageable tasks.

Recursion in Tree Balancing

  • Recursive algorithms are instrumental in balancing operations. For example, in AVL trees, the balancing factor (difference in heights of left and right subtrees) of each node is maintained at -1, 0, or +1. Adjustments (rotations) are made recursively to restore this balance whenever an insertion or deletion operation results in an imbalance.

By comprehending the operational logic of trees, their traversal methods, and how recursion eases these concepts, students can gain a profound insight into both the theoretical underpinnings and practical applications of trees in computing. This foundational knowledge is not just academic but has practical relevance in various computational challenges.


AVL trees, a self-balancing form of binary search trees, ensure balance after insertions and deletions through a combination of rotations and updates to the balance factor of each node. The balance factor is the height difference between the left and right subtrees of a node and is maintained at -1, 0, or +1 in AVL trees.

After each insertion or deletion:

  1. Updating Balance Factor: Starting from the modified node, the balance factor of each node up to the root is updated. If a node's balance factor becomes ±2, a rotation is required.
  2. Rotations: To restore balance, AVL trees use rotations:
  • Single Rotation: If the child’s balance factor is aligned with the parent’s (e.g., right-right or left-left imbalance), a single rotation is sufficient.
  • Double Rotation: If the child’s balance factor is opposite to the parent’s (e.g., left-right or right-left imbalance), a double rotation (first rotating the child, then the parent) is necessary.

These rotations rearrange the nodes and their connections, effectively reducing the height of specific parts of the tree. This ensures that after any operation, the tree remains balanced, preserving the O(log n) complexity for searches, insertions, and deletions.

A non-binary tree is often preferred over a binary tree in scenarios where data hierarchies or relationships are more complex and cannot be effectively represented with just two branches per node. Non-binary trees, such as ternary trees or general m-ary trees, are particularly useful in applications requiring multiway branching. For instance:

  1. Database Indexing: B-trees, a type of non-binary tree, are widely used in databases and file systems for efficient data storage and retrieval, allowing a high number of children per node, which reduces the height of the tree and results in faster disk accesses.
  2. Syntax Trees in Compilers: In programming language compilers, syntax trees (a form of non-binary trees) represent the syntactical structure of code, where a single line of code can have multiple components (operands, operators) branching out.
  3. Decision Trees in AI: In artificial intelligence, particularly in machine learning algorithms, decision trees are used for classification and regression. Here, based on the attributes of the data, a non-binary structure can more accurately represent the series of decision criteria.

In these situations, the ability of non-binary trees to represent complex structures and relationships more naturally and with possibly greater efficiency (in terms of height and balance) than binary trees makes them a preferable choice.

Binary trees themselves are hierarchical structures and are not naturally suited for representing non-linear data structures like graphs, which typically require representing multiple, potentially cyclical, relationships between elements. However, binary trees can be adapted or extended in certain ways to model some aspects of graphs:

  1. Binary Tree Representation of Graphs: A binary tree can represent certain types of graphs. For instance, a binary tree might represent a decision tree in a graph-based model of choices and outcomes. However, this representation is limited and cannot capture the full complexity of graphs, especially those with cycles or multiple connections between the same nodes.
  2. Augmented Data Structures: By augmenting a binary tree with additional pointers or references, it can mimic some graph-like properties. For example, threaded binary trees, where null pointers are replaced with pointers to successor/predecessor nodes, can be seen as a primitive way to introduce graph-like navigation.
  3. Trees as Underlying Structures in Graph Algorithms: Some graph algorithms use tree structures as part of their implementation. For example, a spanning tree of a graph (a tree connecting all vertices of the graph without cycles) is crucial in algorithms like Prim’s or Kruskal’s for finding the minimum spanning tree of a graph.

Overall, while binary trees can represent some graph-like features and be used within graph algorithms, they are not a direct or complete substitute for graph data structures like adjacency lists or adjacency matrices, which are designed to handle the more complex, interconnected nature of graphs.

Tree balancing in non-binary trees is more complex compared to binary trees due to their less restricted structure. In a binary tree, each node has at most two children, so balancing techniques (like AVL or Red-Black Trees) focus primarily on maintaining a nearly equal number of nodes in the left and right subtrees of any node. However, in non-binary trees, a node can have more than two children, leading to a broader and more varied structure. Balancing these trees involves considering multiple child nodes and the depth of each subtree. Techniques such as B-trees or multiway trees for database indexing involve splitting and merging nodes to maintain balance. These operations require carefully maintaining additional properties, like the minimum and maximum number of children, to ensure that the tree remains efficient for operations and does not become too sparse or too dense. The complexity arises from the need to keep track of multiple children per node and ensure that any operation like insertion, deletion, or search maintains the predefined balance criteria.

The concept of balance in trees is fundamentally tied to their efficiency, particularly affecting their time complexity for search, insertion, and deletion operations. In a balanced tree, such as an AVL tree or a Red-Black tree, operations can generally be completed in O(log n) time, where n is the number of nodes. This is because the height of the tree (the longest path from the root to a leaf) is kept as small as possible, ensuring that the number of steps required to reach any node from the root is logarithmic relative to the total number of nodes. In contrast, an imbalanced tree, such as a skewed tree (where each parent node has only one child), can degrade into a linear structure akin to a linked list, leading to a worst-case time complexity of O(n). Balancing a tree ensures that its structure remains efficient for search operations, avoiding the degeneration into a less efficient form.

Practice Questions

Given a binary search tree with the following elements: 30, 15, 60, 7, 22, 45, 75. Show the tree resulting from deleting the node containing 15. Assume that the deletion algorithm replaces the deleted node with the smallest node of the right subtree.

In the binary search tree, deleting the node containing 15 requires us to find the smallest node in its right subtree to replace it. The right subtree of 15 contains the nodes 22. Since 22 has no left child, it is the smallest node in this subtree. Therefore, 22 replaces 15. The tree structure after this deletion has 30 as the root. The left child of 30 is now 22, and the right child remains 60. Since 22 has no left child, the rest of the subtree remains unchanged. The right subtree of 30, with 60 as the root and 45 and 75 as its children, also remains unaffected.

Explain how recursive traversal of a binary tree differs from iterative traversal, using inorder traversal as an example.

Recursive traversal in a binary tree utilises the call stack of the programming language to keep track of the nodes, whereas iterative traversal manages the stack manually using data structures like a stack. In recursive inorder traversal, the function is called recursively for the left subtree, then the current node is processed (or 'visited'), and finally, the function is called recursively for the right subtree. This results in the tree being traversed from the smallest to the largest element in a binary search tree. In contrast, iterative inorder traversal requires explicit use of a stack to first traverse to the leftmost node, then process nodes and move to right subtrees, handling each node's state manually. Recursive traversal is more elegant and closer to the natural hierarchical structure of trees but can be less efficient in terms of memory usage due to the call stack, especially for very deep trees, where iterative traversal provides more control and can be more memory-efficient.

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.

Hire a tutor

Please fill out the form and we'll find a tutor for you.

1/2 About yourself
Still have questions?
Let's get in touch.