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2.1: Selection Sort

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    For example, here’s an implementation of a simple algorithm called selection sort (see

    public class SelectionSort {
         * Swaps the elements at indexes i and j.
        public static void swapElements(int[] array, int i, int j) {
            int temp = array[i];
            array[i] = array[j];
            array[j] = temp;
         * Finds the index of the lowest value
         * starting from the index at start (inclusive)
         * and going to the end of the array.
        public static int indexLowest(int[] array, int start) {
            int lowIndex = start;
            for (int i = start; i < array.length; i++) {
                if (array[i] < array[lowIndex]) {
                    lowIndex = i;
            return lowIndex;
         * Sorts the elements (in place) using selection sort.
        public static void selectionSort(int[] array) {
            for (int i = 0; i < array.length; i++) {
                int j = indexLowest(array, i);
                swapElements(array, i, j);

    The first method, swapElements, swaps two elements of the array. Reading and writing elements are constant time operations, because if we know the size of the elements and the location of the first, we can compute the location of any other element with one multiplication and one addition, and those are constant time operations. Since everything in swapElements is constant time, the whole method is constant time.

    The second method, indexLowest, finds the index of the smallest element of the array starting at a given index, start. Each time through the loop, it accesses two elements of the array and performs one comparison. Since these are all constant time operations, it doesn’t really matter which ones we count. To keep it simple, let’s count the number of comparisons.

    1. If start is 0, indexLowest traverses the entire array, and the total num- ber of comparisons is the length of the array, which I’ll call n.
    2. If start is 1, the number of comparisons is n − 1.
    3. In general, the number of comparisons is n - start, so indexLowest is linear.

    The third method, selectionSort, sorts the array. It loops from 0 to n−1, so the loop executes n times. Each time, it calls indexLowest and then performs a constant time operation, swapElements.

    The first time indexLowest is called, it performs n comparisons. The second time, it performs n − 1 comparisons, and so on. The total number of comparisons is

    \[ n + n - 1 + n - 2 + \dots + 1 + 0 \nonumber \]

    The sum of this series is n(n + 1)/2, which is proportional to n2; and that means that selectionSort is quadratic.

    To get to the same result a different way, we can think of indexLowest as a nested loop. Each time we call indexLowest, the number of operations is proportional to n. We call it n times, so the total number of operations is proportional to n2.

    This page titled 2.1: Selection Sort is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Allen B. Downey (Green Tea Press) .

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