An Introduction to Item Response Theory for Health Behavior Researchers

Authors: Warne, Russell T.1; McKyer, E.J. Lisako2; Smith, Matthew L.3

Source: American Journal of Health Behavior, Volume 36, Number 1, January 2012 , pp. 31-43(13)

Publisher: PNG Publications

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Objective: To introduce item response theory (IRT) to health behavior researchers by contrasting it with classical test theory and providing an example of IRT in health behavior. Method: Demonstrate IRT by fitting the 2PL model to substance-use survey data from the Adolescent Health Risk Behavior questionnaire (n=1343 adolescents). Results: An IRT 2PL model can produce viable substance use scores that differentiate different levels of substance use, resulting in improved precision and specificity at the respondent level. Conclusion: IRT is a viable option for health researchers who want to produce high-quality scores for unidimensional constructs. The results from our example—although not flawless—demonstrate the feasibility of IRT in health behavior research.


Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: 1: Visiting Professor, Department of Educational Psychology; Child and Adolescent Health Research Laboratory, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX;, Email: 2: Assistant Professor, Department of Health & Kinesiology; Child and Adolescent Health Research Laboratory, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX 3: Assistant Professor, Department of Health Promotion & Behavior, College of Public Health, University of Georgia, Athens, GA

Publication date: January 1, 2012

More about this publication?
  • The American Journal of Health Behavior seeks to improve the quality of life through multidisciplinary health efforts in fostering a better understanding of the multidimensional nature of both individuals and social systems as they relate to health behaviors.

    The Journal aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of the impact of personal attributes, personality characteristics, behavior patterns, social structure, and processes on health maintenance, health restoration, and health improvement; to disseminate knowledge of holistic, multidisciplinary approaches to designing and implementing effective health programs; and to showcase health behavior analysis skills that have been proven to affect health improvement and recovery.
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