If there has been one recurring theme so far, it’s that more organized data can be valuable for certain types of computations, like searching for an element in a list. Specifically, we’ve noted that having a sorted list is generally more useful than having an unsorted list.
So, how can we sort a list? As with searching, we’ll start with a naive, intuitive approach (called insertion sort). In a later quiz, we’ll explore more efficient methods of sorting.
Let be an array sorted in increasing order (from smallest to largest), and let be a single element outside of it. The natural question is, how can we place into our array while still keeping it sorted?
This operation is known as an insertion, and there are multiple ways to do it. However, in this chapter we will only concern ourselves with the method used in insertion sort, which uses the steps outlined below.
With each repetition of step two, we will either finish inserting, or reduce the number of elements ahead of by one. Since we are also finished when no more elements remain in front of , repeating step two is guaranteed to successfully make an insertion.
Suppose we have an array, [1, 3, 6, 7, 10], and a new element to add, . If we use the insertion procedure from our last slide to add to our array, how many comparisons will it take and what will be the final index of in the array?
Remember that arrays are indexed starting from zero, so the first element would correspond with index , the second with index , and so on.
Hint: Make sure you're following the algorithm we went over earlier. Remember that we make comparisons going from right to left.
The full insertion sort algorithm works by dividing an array into two pieces, a sorted region on the left and an unsorted region on the right. Then, by repeatedly inserting elements from the unsorted half into the sorted half, the algorithm eventually produces a fully sorted array. The full steps of this process for an array, , are shown below
Notice that this method doesn’t require us to create a new array to store the sorted values. All we have to do is keep track of how much of the original array is sorted. This makes insertion sort an in-place algorithm.
We start from the left. At first there is one element (which is, trivially, already sorted).
Colloquially speaking, for each subsequent element, we compare it to each of the elements to the left of it, moving right to left, until we find where it “fits” in the sorted portion of the array.
Since we are inserting the new element into the side of the array that is already sorted, the result will still be sorted.
After we’ve inserted every element, we have a sorted array!
Suppose you had the following poker hand dealt to you, and you decide to use insertion sort to sort it from smallest to largest:
Note that How many individual comparisons between cards would need to be made for the sort if we strictly stick to the instructions for insertion sort shown earlier?
Reminder: First, the and are compared. Then, the and are compared, then the and and so on.
Ari wants to prove that insertion sort is slow. What order should he put the cards in to make sorting the cards in ascending order maximally inefficient?
In the worst case for a list with 10 distinct elements, how many comparisons between list elements are made?
In the best case for a list with 10 distinct elements, how many comparisons are made?
The worst case increases like for large while the best case increases linearly (like ). Unfortunately for insertion sort—as we’ll explore in the next quiz—the worst case is much more likely, and the average case also increases like
Thankfully, we can do better. In later quizzes, we’ll dive into more complex, more efficient sorting algorithms; their worst case performance will increase like for large
Before we get there, we need to take a detour to start formalizing this language of computational complexity. How do we actually express how many computations an algorithm will use, and how do we meaningfully compare algorithms? We’ll explore this in the next quiz, on big O notation.