# Tackling Programming Assignments

When learning to code, you are encouraged to compile and run tiny bits of code to have a better understanding of how a particular method or programming construct works. This practice promotes independent learning and experimentation.

However, although such a technique is useful in learning how to code it is the exact opposite of what you should do when you are actually programming, for instance when you are trying to solve a lab assignment. Here I would like to make a distinction between programming and coding. Programming refers to the task of solving a computational problem by developing a program. Assuming the problem to be solved is well understood, then programming essentially involves two steps, 1) coming up with a solution and 2) implementing it in a particular programming language. The latter step is what I refer to as “coding”.

Unfortunately, the first step of programming, aka problem solving, cannot really be taught directly. In a way, it is similar to doing proofs, whereby first you have to come up with a strategy to approach the problem, then you have to fill in all the details when you actually write out the proof properly. Much of it is learnt from actually solving problems and from observing how others do it. There are some general heuristics/techniques to try, but how to put them together requires experience.

# Examine the problem to gain insights vs Trying known solutions

The key to solving a problem is to understand its structure. If its very similar to another problem, you may want to try to see if the approach which work on that other problem can be applied to this one. However, blindly trying to fit the data structures/algorithms you know to the problem is unlikely to yield much results.

# Getting stuck

I think getting stuck thinking of an algorithm for the problem is very common. Sometimes it could be because the problem seems so unfamiliar or that you don’t really fully understand what the question is asking for. Therefore the first step is to make sure you know what is required and you should understand every statement in the question. Every bit of information could be useful (and it usually is).

Secondly it could be difficult to think of a solution for the general case immediately. However one strategy is to consider making the problem simpler say instead of the input n being from 1 to 1000,000, you can consider a simpler problem where the input n is only from 1 to 10. Then given an instance of the simpler problem, try to solve it manually. Usually doing this can give you additional insights into how the general problem can be solved using an algorithm. Perhaps it might even inspire you to come up with a recursive procedure for this problem.

Another useful technique is to write down some observations/properties of the problem, they might help you in solving the problem. Try to be more structured when you think about solutions and not just go about it blindly, organise the information you have and see how it can be turned into an algorithm.

# Which data structure?

Once you have an algorithm, you probably need to use some data structures to keep track of the information you need during the course of executing the algorithm. How to choose the data structure to use depends on a few issues. \begin{enumerate} \item what kind of operations do you require ? i.e. Is it only insert and searching or do I need to be able to delete or merge the structures ? Do I need to insert at the end only or at any arbitrary position etc. \item how often do I perform these operations on the data structure in the course of executing the algorithm ? i.e. Is is only once at the beginning as a preprocessing step or do I need to make O(n) calls to the insertion procedure \end{enumerate}

Once you have decided how the data structure is to be used, then you can start to think of the structures you have learnt for this course, what operations do they support and what is the complexity of the operations and pick the one which can give you the best performance.

# Coding data structures

Given the limited amount of time in a semester, its impossible for the course to cover every single detail from the algorithm down to its implementation. Therefore most of the time is on explaining the algorithm from a high level perspective so that students have an intuitive understanding of how and why a particular algorithm works.

Converting that understanding to working code is usually done on the onus of the students themselves and it can be a daunting task especially if you are unfamiliar with the programming language. A good way to get started is to look at the implementation given in text books. Look at how they design the program, what programming constructs they used. Then attempt to write your own data structure incrementally, start by making sure you have constructed the structure correctly then write methods for the simplest operations. Test it to make sure it is correct. Once you build up some confidence you can start to write methods for the more complicated operations. A good exercise would be to write your own AVL tree class in Java.