A brief manual

Daniel C. Furr


The edstan package for R provides convenience functions and pre-programmed Stan models related to item response theory (IRT). Its purpose is to make fitting common IRT models using Stan easy. edstan relies on the rstan package, which should be installed first. See here for instructions on installing rstan.

The following table lists the models packaged with edstan. Each of these may optionally included a latent regression of ability. The table includes links to case studies that document the Stan code for these models and provide example analyses.

Model Stan file
Rasch rasch_latent_reg.stan
Partial credit pcm_latent_reg.stan
Rating scale rsm_latent_reg.stan
Two-parameter logistic 2pl_latent_reg.stan
Generalized partial credit gpcm_latent_reg.stan
Generalized rating scale grsm_latent_reg.stan

The next table lists the functions packaged with edstan.

Function Purpose
irt_data() Prepares data for fitting
labelled_integer() Create vector of consecutive integers
irt_stan() Wrapper for Running MCMC
print_irt_stan() Show table of output
stan_columns_plot() Create plot of convergence statistics

Brief tutorial

Spelling data and dichotomous IRT

The R code below first loads edstan, which implicitly loads rstan. Then the two commands that follow set options related to rstan, which are generally recommended. The first causes compiled Stan models to be saved to disc, which allows models to run more quickly after the first time. The second causes Stan to run multiple MCMC chains in parallel.

# Load packages and set options
rstan_options(auto_write = TRUE)
options(mc.cores = parallel::detectCores())

Next we get summary information for the spelling data.

# Summarize the spelling data

The dataset is a response matrix indicating whether the 658 respondents spelled four words correctly. It also includes a dummy variable for whether the respondent is male. Data is fed into Stan in list form, and the next block of code demonstrates how a suitable data list may be constructed using the irt_data() function. The response matrix (that is, all columns but the first) is provided as the response_matrix option.

# Make a data list
simple_list <- irt_data(response_matrix = spelling[, -1])

This data list may be fed to the irt_stan() function to fit a Rasch or 2PL model, but for this example we will add a person covariate to the model using the optional arguments covariates and formula. The covariates option takes a data frame of person-related covariates and the formula option takes a formula to be applied to that data frame. The left side of the formula should be left empty, though implicitly it is latent ability. The choice of what to include in the latent regression (if anything) is made when calling irt_data() to assemble a data list.

In the next block a data list is made that includes male as a covariate. Note that drop = FALSE is specified when subsetting the data frame below because R will simplify the result to a vector otherwise. This complication is default R behavior and not specific to edstan.

# Make a data list with person covariates
latent_reg_list <- irt_data(response_matrix = spelling[, -1],
                            covariates = spelling[, "male", drop = FALSE],
                            formula = ~ 1 + male)

The only difference between the two lists are K and W. The first list has W with \(K=1\) columns, which is a constant for the model intercept. The second list has W with \(K=2\) columns, which correspond to the constant for the model intercept and the male indicator variable. In either list, W has one row per person.

Next we fit the model using the irt_stan() function, which is a wrapper for stan() from rstan. latent_reg_list is provided as the data, and the name of one of the .stan files to use is provided as the model argument. We also choose the number of chains and number of iterations per chain. By default the first half of each chain is discarded as warm up.

# Fit the Rasch model
fit_rasch <- irt_stan(latent_reg_list, model = "rasch_latent_reg.stan",
                      iter = 300, chains = 4)

The stan_columns_plot() shows convergence statistics for the fitted model. As an aside, it may also be used to show other statistics such as posterior means or numbers of effective samples.

# View convergence statistics

print_irt_stan() provides a summary of parameter posteriors. It is a wrapper for the print() method for fitted Stan models, selecting and organizing the most interesting parameters. Labels for the items are automatically taken from the column names of the response matrix. Regarding the parameters in the output: beta refers to item difficulties, lambda refers to latent regression coefficients, and sigma is the standard deviation of the ability distribution.

# View a summary of parameter posteriors                      
print_irt_stan(fit_rasch, latent_reg_list)

If we prefer to fit the 2PL model with latent regression, we could call irt_stan() and select that .stan file.

# Fit the Rasch model
fit_rasch <- irt_stan(latent_reg_list, model = "2pl_latent_reg.stan",
                      iter = 300, chains = 4)

Verbal aggression data and polytomous IRT

The second example will use the verbal aggression data to fit a polytomous item response theory model.

# Describe the data

The data consists of 316 persons responding to 24 items with responses scored as 0, 1, or 2. The variable person is a person ID, item is an item ID, and poly is the scored response. In this way, the data may be said to be in “long form” as there is one row per person-item combination. The data includes two person covariates: male is a dummy variable for whether the respondent is male, and anger is the person’s trait anger raw score, a separate measure.

The labelled_integer() function may help prepare the data list when the data are in long form. Stan models generally require that ID variables be consecutive integers starting at one. In other words, the first item must have an ID value of 1, the second 2, and so on. The same is true of person IDs. But sometimes the raw data may have alphanumerics or arbitrary numbers for person or item IDs, and if so we can use labelled_integer() to create an appropriate vector of consecutive integers. The verbal aggression data includes the variable description, which is a brief text description of the item. Below, labelled_integer() is applied to the first few values of this variable.

# Show an example of using labelled_integer()

The result is integer values that are labeled with the original text descriptions. For the verbal aggression data, we could simply use the item variable for an item index rather than apply labelled_integer() to the descriptions, but a benefit of using labelled_integer() is that the table of posterior summaries (shown shortly) will include the item labels.

Next we make the data list using irt_data(). However, we’ll use a different set of arguments because the data are in long form: y takes the responses in vector form, ii takes a vector of item IDs, and jj takes a vector of person IDs. The use of covariates and formula are the same as before.

# Make the data list
agg_list <- irt_data(y = aggression$poly,
                     ii = labelled_integer(aggression$description),
                     jj = aggression$person,
                     covariates = aggression[, c("male", "anger")],
                     formula = ~ 1 + male*anger)

The model is fit using the generalized partial credit model.

# Fit the generalized partial credit model
fit_gpcm <- irt_stan(agg_list, model = "gpcm_latent_reg.stan",
                     iter = 300, chains = 4)

As before, a plot of convergence statistics is made.

# View convergence statistics

And lastly we obtain a table of posterior summaries. Here, alpha refers to discriminations, beta refers to step difficulties, and lambda refers to latent regression coefficients.

# View a summary of parameter posteriors    
print_irt_stan(fit_gpcm, agg_list)

Technical notes

Users will be able to fit the edstan models without full knowledge of the technical details, though these are provided in this section. All that is really needed for interpreting results is to know the meanings assigned to the Greek letters.


Variables and parameters are similar across edstan models. The variables used are:

The parameters used are:

The .stan files and the notation for the models below closely adhere to these conventions.

Rasch family models

Rasch model


\[ \mathrm{logit} [ \Pr(y_{ij} = 1 | \theta_j, \beta_i) ] = \theta_j - \beta_i \]

Partial credit model


\[ \Pr(Y_{ij} = y,~y > 0 | \theta_j, \beta_i) = \frac{\exp \sum_{s=1}^y (\theta_j - \beta_{is})} {1 + \sum_{k=1}^{m_i} \exp \sum_{s=1}^k (\theta_j - \beta_{is})} \] \[ \Pr(Y_{ij} = y,~y = 0 | \theta_j, \beta_i) = \frac{1} {1 + \sum_{k=1}^{m_i} \exp \sum_{s=1}^k (\theta_j - \beta_{is})} \]

Rating scale model


\[ \Pr(Y_{ij} = y,~y > 0 | \theta_j, \beta_i, \kappa_s) = \frac{\exp \sum_{s=1}^y (\theta_j - \beta_i - \kappa_s)} {1 + \sum_{k=1}^{m} \exp \sum_{s=1}^k (\theta_j - \beta_i - \kappa_s)} \] \[ \Pr(Y_{ij} = y,~y = 0 | \theta_j, \beta_i, \kappa_s) = \frac{1} {1 + \sum_{k=1}^{m} \exp \sum_{s=1}^k (\theta_j - \beta_i - \kappa_s)} \]

Models featuring discrimination parameters

Two-parameter logistic model


\[ \mathrm{logit} [ \Pr(y_{ij} = 1 | \alpha_i, \beta_i, \theta_j) ] = \alpha_i \theta_j - \beta_i \]

Generalized partial credit model


\[ \Pr(Y_{ij} = y,~y > 0 | \theta_j, \alpha_i, \beta_i) = \frac{\exp \sum_{s=1}^y (\alpha_i \theta_j - \beta_{is})} {1 + \sum_{k=1}^{m_i} \exp \sum_{s=1}^k (\alpha_i \theta_j - \beta_{is})} \] \[ \Pr(Y_{ij} = y,~y = 0 | \theta_j, \alpha_i, \beta_i) = \frac{1} {1 + \sum_{k=1}^{m_i} \exp \sum_{s=1}^k (\alpha_i \theta_j + w_{j}' \lambda - \beta_{is})} \]

Generalized rating scale model


\[ \Pr(Y_{ij} = y,~y > 0 | \theta_j, \lambda, \alpha_i, \beta_i, \kappa_s) = \frac{\exp \sum_{s=1}^y (\alpha_i \theta_j - \beta_i - \kappa_s)} {1 + \sum_{k=1}^{m} \exp \sum_{s=1}^k (\alpha_i \theta_j - \beta_i - \kappa_s)} \] \[ \Pr(Y_{ij} = y,~y = 0 | \theta_j, \lambda, \alpha_i, \beta_i, \kappa_s) = \frac{1} {1 + \sum_{k=1}^{m} \exp \sum_{s=1}^k (\alpha_i \theta_j - \beta_i - \kappa_s)} \]


For Rasch family models, the prior distributions for the person-related parameters are \[\theta_j \sim \mathrm{N}(w_j' \lambda, \sigma^2)\] \[\lambda \sim t_3(0, 1)\] \[\sigma \sim \mathrm{Exp}(.1)\]

For models with discrimination parameters, the priors are \[\theta_j \sim \mathrm{N}(w_j' \lambda, 1)\] \[\lambda \sim t_3(0, 1)\]

In either case, the prior for \(\lambda\) is applied to centered and scaled versions of the person covariates. Specifically: (1) continuous covariates are mean-centered and then divided by two times their standard deviations, (2) binary covariates are mean-centered and divided their maximum minus minimum values, and (3) no change is made to the constant, set to one, for the model intercept. \(t_3\) is the Student’s \(t\) distribution with three degrees of freedom. Though the model is estimated using adjusted covariates, the Stan models report \(\lambda\) for the original values of the covariates.

The priors for the item parameters are \[\alpha \sim \mathrm{lognormal}(1, 1)\] \[\beta \sim \mathrm{N}(0, 9)\] \[\kappa \sim \mathrm{N}(0, 9)\] No prior is placed on the last \(\beta_i\), as it is constrained such that the vector \(\beta\) has a mean of zero. The same is true regarding the vector \(\kappa\).

Writing your own Stan models

It is expected that edstan users will eventually want to write their own Stan models. In this case, the edstan functions may still be useful. If the user-written models use the same conventions for naming variables and parameters as the edstan models, then the irt_data() and print_irt_stan() functions will work just fine for the user-written models. The function stan_columns_plot() works with any Stan model, and labelled_integer() may help in data preparation for Stan models in general.

The Stan models included in edstan may be used as a starting point in developing custom models. However, the latent regression models are unusually complicated because they are written to be as general as possible. In particular, the “automatic” priors for latent regression coefficients lead to cumbersome Stan code. For this reason, simpler Stan models are provided that omit the latent regression. These are rasch_simple.stan, pcm_simple.stan, and rsm_simple.stan. The following code shows how to find and view one of these files.

# Find and view the "simple" Rasch model
rasch_file <- system.file("extdata/rasch_simple.stan",
                          package = "edstan")
cat(readLines(rasch_file), sep = "\n")

Note that the latent regression models may be used even when person covariates are not included and will be similarly efficient as their “simple” counterparts.