foldl and foldr

(foldl proc init lst ...+) -Any
(foldr proc init lst ...+) -Any

foldl and foldr both act as reducers on lists, using proc to "fold" each item of the list in turn into the initial value init.

The signature of proc is important. More specifically, the type signature of foldl/foldr with one lst argument is

(X Y -Y) Y [List-of-X] -Y

meaning that proc should take two arguments (if there is one lst) like so:

item-from-lst accumulated-value


The canonical example of foldl usage is taking the sum of a list of numbers:

(define numbers '(1 2 3 4 5 6))

; `proc` is the addition function, `+`
; `init` is 0
; `lst` is `numbers`
(foldl + 0 numbers)

; Using foldl to concatenate a list of strings
(define words '("madam" "im" "adam"))

(foldl string-append "" words)

Difference Between foldl and foldr

The most important difference between foldl and foldr is that foldl traverses the list from left-to-right, and foldr from right-to-left. Continuing the above example,

(foldl string-append "" words)

; foldr does things the other way around
(foldr string-append "" words)

How does this affect implementation? The difference is that foldl is tail-recursive, whereas foldr is not.

With foldl (and accumulator patterns generally), proc is applied to the current list value and the accumulator. That is, the recursive expression looks like this:

(my-foldl proc
          (proc (first lst) init)  ; proc applied here
          (rest lst))

With foldr and non-optimized patterns, proc is applied to the current value and the result of recursing on the rest of the list. That is, evaluation cannot complete until the entire list has been traversed.

(proc (first lst)     ; proc is all the way up here
      (my-foldr proc
                init  ; init is unmodified
                (rest lst)))

Student Language Implementations

Student lang implementations of each function, demonstrating how the difference in order of application affects the structure and space efficiency of each function:

; foldl is constant space because it uses an accumulator
(define (my-foldl proc init lst)
    ; In the base case, return init
    [(empty? lst) init]
     ; Fold current list item into the accumulator
     ; and pass that to the next recursive call,
     ; as the new init
     (my-foldl proc
               (proc (first lst) init)  ; new init
               (rest lst))]))

(define (my-foldr proc init lst)
    ; In the base case, return init
    [(empty? lst) init]
     ; Since we are starting from the end of the list
     ; or innermost pair, we will use parenthetical order
     ; of operations to make sure the inner items get folded
     ; first.
     (proc (first lst)
           (my-foldr proc
                     (rest lst)))]))

Teaching Notes

These are typically the most confusing higher-order functions in EECS 111. Whereas previous examples such as map and filter preserve the shape of the input lst, foldl and foldr flatten them completely using a vaguely arcane mechanism, which breaks with students' mental models for higher-order functions.

When first introducing foldl/foldr, it can help to follow this order:

  1. Demonstrate usage of the "fold" mechanic, using just foldl and an associative procedure (e.g. + and *)
  2. Introduce the difference between the two functions at a high level using a non-associative procedure (e.g. -)
  3. Show how implementation varies between the two functions (with foldl being constant-space)

It is important to introduce both + and * in Step 1, in order to demonstrate two different init values.

(foldl + 0 '(1 2 3 4))  ; the additive identity is 0
(foldl * 1 '(1 2 3 4))  ; the multiplicative identity is 1

Make sure to guide students through Step 2 carefully. It is easy to choose arguments without thinking, which result in identical output from foldl and foldr.

Namely, even if the student uses a non-associative function such as -, passing a lst with an odd number of elements or duplicate elements can sometimes cause foldl and foldr to produce the same value:

> (foldl - 0 '(1 2 3 4 5))
> (foldr - 0 '(1 2 3 4 5))
> (foldr - 0 '(1 2 3 2))
> (foldl - 0 '(1 2 3 2))

Take care to show (foldl - ...) examples with an odd number of unique lst elements.

Students also get extremely confused when tracing the execution of both functions in their student language implementations. Prepare for tutorials by tracing through a couple of examples until you are rock-solid on how they work.

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