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Learn Data Structures: Best Courses, Books, and Resources for Learning Data Structures

Brandi Taylor - August 21, 2022


Data structures are formats used in computer science and programming to efficiently organize, store, and access data used by a program. If you want to learn coding to become a programmer, it’s important to learn data structures to enable efficient access to data while you are working on a given project. Learning data structures might be a challenging task, but there are excellent resources available to help you on your journey.

Keep reading to find out how to learn data structures by using the best courses, books, and other resources. With these tools, you will learn data structures and algorithms, understand different types of data structures and their uses, and learn the steps you need to take to master this subject.

What Are Data Structures?

Data structures are specific formats that determine the ways in which data is organized so that it can be retrieved easily and in a way that facilitates its use and manipulation. When thinking of data structures, think of a collection of values and how they relate to each other within your program. Data structures are found in high-level programming languages such as JavaScript, Swift, Python, Java, and C#, and are a fundamental computer science concept.

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What Are Data Structures Used for?

So, what are data structures used for? They are used to store and access your data in as efficient a way as possible to create the best user experience without overloading the user’s system. It’s important to learn how to create effective data structures to organize and store data, and how to implement them according to the needs of your project.

When you learn data structures, you’ll also need to learn about algorithms. Algorithms are a specific set of instructions given to a program. They are used to give instructions to a computer regarding how a data structure is laid out and how to best access the information in it. Make sure to practice your algorithm skills when you learn data structures.

Types of Data Structures

Different types of data structures exist according to different user needs. When you learn data structures, you will come across these variations, although they are fairly consistent across all programming languages that support them. Some of the most common types of data structures are:

  • Lists . Lists, also known as arrays, are a collection of data values stored together in memory. In these core data structures, each value can be retrieved by an index, or location, within the list. Some programming languages like Swift guarantee the same order of elements within the array, while others like JavaScript do not guarantee the order of elements. With a list, values can be inserted at a particular index, moved to a different index, or removed altogether.
  • Linked Lists . Linked lists can be singly or doubly linked. This type of data structure is similar to lists and arrays as they are a collection of data nodes and values. However, unlike lists or arrays, their nodes are not stored together in memory. In a singly linked list, each node stored in the list also contains a value and pointer to the next node in the list. In a doubly linked list, each node stored in the list contains a value and pointer to the next node in the list, as well as a value and a pointer to the previous node in the list.
  • Dictionaries . These types of data structures are similar to how a human language dictionary is used to find a word (key) and a definition (value). Dictionaries use a key/value pair to store data. When accessing data within a dictionary, you will often use the key to access the value associated with it. Although dictionaries may have different names in various programming languages (Dictionary in Swift and Python, or Object in JavaScript, for example), they are fundamentally the same across languages.
  • Stacks . Stacks are linear data structures that maintain the order of values. Values in a stack have to be added and removed in a particular order. A stack can be thought of as having a stack of papers. You can only add new papers by placing a new piece on top of the stack and to access the bottom paper, you must remove each piece in order. Stacks follow the Last In First Out (LIFO) principle since the last value of the stack must be removed first to access any value before it.
  • Queues . Queues are similar to stacks but follow the First In First Out (FIFO) principle. Just like people in the queue for a roller coaster, the first value in line is the first value to board the ride. When adding values in these types of data structures, you can only access the latter values by removing the values that were added prior.

There are many other types of data structures such as Binary Trees, Graphs, Hash Tables, and Heaps. Each type of data structure has its own unique use uses and advantages, and there are various reasons why a computer scientist or programmer will use one data type over another. It’s important to learn data structures as a programmer so you know which data structure is best suited for each project you take on.

Prerequisites to Learning Data Structures

Having experience in programming or computer science can help you understand data structures better. Students are taught some of the basic and most common data structures in the beginning. They are also taught how to implement and use those data structures within a language.

While having some computer science knowledge is helpful in learning data structures, it’s certainly not necessary in the very beginning. As you begin to become more fluent and knowledgeable within the programming language you’re learning, you can start to gain an understanding of some of the more advanced implementations of data structures and algorithms.

Though, it must be noted that having a good understanding of data structures can help you have a better underlying understanding of the code you’re writing when you are learning a programming language and the impact your data will have on your program.

How to Learn Data Structures: Step-by-Step

To learn data structures, you need time, dedication, and practice. It’s important to understand how to use data structures conceptually, as well as how to use and implement them. Here are five steps you can follow to learn data structures and algorithms:

Pick a Programming Language to Use

While you can learn data structures conceptually, using a popular programming language is a much better way to learn data structures and algorithms. This can be a language you’re already familiar with, or you can start learning data structures at the same time as you’re learning your first programming language. If you don’t already know a programming language, Python is always a good choice as your first, and there are many great introductory Python courses .

Select an In-Person or Online Course to Learn Data Structures

Data structures are the foundation of any computer science curriculum, which means you can learn data structures by yourself through online data structure and algorithm courses or coding bootcamps . Whether you’re pursuing a degree in computer science or learning online and independently, you can find a variety of courses to help you learn data structures and algorithms. If the coding bootcamp route interests you, get matched with top bootcamps with FastTrack .

Master Data Structure Basics

If you want to learn data structures, you need to master data structure basics. Once you select a programming language and find a course, academic program, or coding bootcamp, it’s your time to dive into fundamental concepts and put them into practice.

Pick single topics, such as basic data structures, the nature of a non-linear data structure, space complexities, or tree data structures, and find some practical exercises to help you solidify your skills.

Keep in mind that when you learn data structures, depth is more important than breadth. So, if you want to learn binary search trees, make sure you focus fully on this topic, study it in depth, and create binary tree structures to help you practice. Don’t try to tackle everything at once, as that will only dilute your focus and lead to frustration.

Dedicate Time for Learning Each Day or Week

In terms of time you dedicate to learning data structures, consistency is key. If your goal is deep learning, it is better to put in a short amount of time every day than to practice several hours a few times per month.

As your schedule allows, dedicate an hour a night, or a few hours per week for uninterrupted learning. Remember to use some of that time for hands-on practice to improve your level of expertise over time.

Practice What You Have Learned

Extensive practice is paramount to gaining a deep understanding of essential topics in data structures, as well as advanced topics later on. Hands-on practice helps solidify your skills. Just as you learned basic math operations through repetition in school, you should practice by building and implementing data structures, creating a program of your own, or completing code challenges that utilize data structures.

Expand Your Knowledge to Another Language

After you feel fluent in your first language, branch out and learn another. Compare and contrast how data structures are used in each language. For instance, you can learn JavaScript , its common operations, and how data structures and common algorithms are created and supported with this language to create dynamic programming solutions.

Where to Learn Data Structures and Algorithms

If you’re curious about where to learn data structures and algorithms, keep reading. Below, we discuss the best courses, books, and other resources that you can leverage to learn the basics of data structures and their everyday applications, and become familiar with algorithms.

The resources below can also help you if you want to move on to advanced data structures and advanced algorithms. With this knowledge, you can confidently launch a career in tech, apply to jobs, and have the knowledge you need to nail your job interview and answer tough interview questions related to this field.

In-Person Instruction for Learning Data Structures

Check your nearby community college or local university if you’re interested in learning data structures. College courses that teach data structures might be part of a degree program in computer science, but your local institution may also teach certified courses. Some schools might also provide courses as part of a professional development or continued learning program.

Online Instruction for Learning Data Structures

It’s not necessary to seek a college degree to learn data structures and implement them as you code. Many successful computer scientists and programmers are self-taught, have taken an online data structures and algorithms course, or have attended online bootcamps . If online learning fits your learning style, the list below can help you find the right data structure course for you:

Data Structures Fundamentals by UC San Diego

Data Structures Fundamentals is offered on edX by The University of California, San Diego, and is taught by Daniel Kane and Alexander S. Kulikov. You are required to have a basic grasp of a common programming language such as C, Java, JavaScript, or Python.

This data structures and algorithms online course is self-paced and should take about six weeks to complete with an 8-10 hour per week time commitment. The course is offered free, but you can get a verified certificate for $99.

CS50: Introduction to Computer Science by Harvard

This popular intro to computer science course is offered free online on edX and is provided by Harvard. This course will allow you to learn data structures and it will also teach you about algorithms, encapsulation, resource management, security, software engineering, and web development.

CS50 is self-paced and takes 11 weeks to complete with a 10-20 hour per week commitment. There are no prerequisites required to take this data structures course, and the class is a part of several professional certificate programs available. You can get a verified certificate for $199 after completing this course.

Master the Coding Interview: Data Structures + Algorithms by ZTM

This data structures and algorithms course is geared toward students who want to master these subjects and want to land jobs without having a computer science degree. A strong component of the course is that it helps you with everything you need to prepare for a job interview . You need a basic understanding of coding and familiarity with a programming language to take this course.

Aside from preparing you for the job market, the course will help you build up your fundamental computer science skills, learn how to create and implement different types of data structures, and provide you with the confidence you need to launch a successful career in tech.

Data Structures and Algorithms: Deep Dive Using Java by Udemy

This course was created to help you learn data structures from the bottom up. The course focuses on data structures using Java, so familiarity with this or another programming language is recommended.

Throughout the course, you will learn about arrays, trees, stacks, queues, liked lists, and algorithms. You will learn the theory and also be guided through practical exercises to help solidify your skills and your understanding of how different types of data structures are implemented.

Data Structures Books

Below we’ve listed some of the best data structures books to help you learn data structures and algorithms. Whether it’s a digital book or a physical copy, having a book with you while you learn is a great resource to gain a solid understanding of data structures. Check out our list and choose the best book for data structures and algorithms according to your interests and goals.

A Common-Sense Guide to Data Structures and Algorithms, Second Edition: Level Up Your Core Programming Skills by Jay Wengrow

Offered as an ebook or paperback, this book offers a practical approach to mastering data structures and algorithms so your mobile and web applications run more efficiently. Code examples are provided in JavaScript, Python, and Ruby.

Hands-On Data Structures and Algorithms with Python, Second Edition by Dr. Basant Agarwal and Benjamin Baca

This book allows you to learn data structures and algorithms in Python. You’ll learn data structures discussed in this article, as well as an assortment of sorting algorithms such as bubble sort and selection sort. You’ll also learn some Python coding best practices. This book assumes you have basic knowledge of Python before reading it.

Grokking Algorithms: An Illustrated Guide for Programmers and Other Curious People, 1st Edition by Aditya Bhargava

While Grokking Algorithms focuses more on algorithms and less on data structures, reading this book makes it easy to see how algorithms are used on data structures and exactly what purpose they serve within your code. The examples in this book are easy to understand and humorous. This is one of the best data structure books for those looking for a more whimsical experience.

Online Resources for Learning Data Structures

The best resources to learn data structures are often found online. Keep reading to learn about the best YouTube channels and other resources that will help you master basic and advanced topics in data structures and algorithms.

YouTube

YouTube is one of the best resources to learn data structures, as well as a variety of other topics related to programming. There are channels covering a wide array of topics, with free videos that will help you master the concepts and give you the confidence you need to try your hand at creating your own algorithms and data structures.

  • CS Dojo . CS Dojo was created by a former software developer at Google. He offers easy-to-understand videos on Computer Science topics and has a playlist dedicated to teaching Data Structures and Algorithms .
  • CS50 Lecture 5 . This is the fifth lecture in the CS50 course mentioned in the online instruction section of this article. The almost two-hour course offers in-depth explanations of popular data structures and how to implement them.
  • Rob Edwards . Rob Edwards is a microbiologist and computer programmer in Australia. Like the creator of CS Dojo, he has a YouTube channel full of videos on many computer science topics, as well as a playlist dedicated to data structures . His explanations and illustrations make data structures easier to understand.

Open Data Structures

Open Data Structures is an open context textbook found online. Learning from the website is free, and an optional paid paperback version is available on Amazon.  Open Data Structures provides learning data structures in three programming languages (Python, Java, and C++) and five human languages (English, Slovenian, Turkish, Japanese, and Portuguese).

GeeksforGeeks

GeeksforGeeks is a website dedicated to many computer science and programming topics. Their explanations and code examples are usually offered in a few different programming languages such as C++, Java, Python, C#, and PHP. This site is bookmark-worthy, as they are extremely helpful when learning about different topics along with hundreds of accompanying subtopics, explanations, and examples.

Should You Study Data Structures?

Yes, you should learn data structures and algorithms if you want to become a successful programmer. Having a good foundation of data structures will help you write better, more efficient code. When you learn data structures and algorithms, you are able to organize your code so data can be easily stored, accessed, and manipulated by users.

Data structures are commonly used in professional programming environments and all coders need at least some basic knowledge of data structures. Most job recruiters assume you have an understanding of data structures and will see how you utilize them during your coding interview. Level up your skills and knowledge by learning data structures and algorithms today.

Learn Data Structures FAQ

​​How long does it take to learn data structures?

Typically, it takes two or three months to learn the fundamentals of data structures, and up to six months to learn more advanced techniques. How young you take to learn data structures and algorithms will ultimately depend on how much time you put into studying and practicing what you learn.


Is learning data structures and algorithms hard?

Yes, learning data structures is hard, especially if you are completely new to coding and are completely unfamiliar with popular programming languages. However, if you put in the work and study consistently, it will become easier to create and implement data structures.


Is learning data structures and algorithms worth it?

Yes, learning data structures and algorithms is worth it. This knowledge will help you create efficient programs and come up with optimal solutions to real-world problems as a coder. They are a fundamental tool in any programmer’s belt, so you should devote time and energy to learning data structures early in your coding career.


Which language is best for data structures and algorithms?

The best language for data structures and algorithms is one that you’re already familiar with. If you are not familiar with any coding languages, a friendly, easy-to-use, general-purpose language such as Python is a great place to start.

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Brandi Taylor

About the author: Brandi Taylor is a technical writer at Career Karma, where she covers topics such as iOS development, computer science, and web development. A Lambda School alum, Brandi has been immersed in the tech world since the late 90s as a freelance web designer, building sites for startups and other organizations. Since joining the Career Karma team in November 2020, Brandi has used her extensive software development knowledge to connect people with future careers in tech.

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