While no two research databases work exactly the same, many of them have certain features in common. Most of these tips will work on most research databases.
The controlled vocabulary is the most powerful feature of research databases and nearly all of them expose their controlled vocabulary for you to use in their search results. In many cases this takes the form of a sidebar with options for refining or limiting your search. The brief video below shows how this works in EBSCO databases. The same techniques can be used in many other databases, although the location of the sidebar or of the items in the sidebar, as well as their names, may be different.
From the sidebar, most databases give you the option to limit your results by applying certain subject terms. Others also allow you to refine your results by excluding terms you're not interested in.
You can also usually access the controlled vocabulary from the full records of each individual article or paper. After clicking the title of the article in the results list to open the full record, look for a section called "subject terms" or "key words" or something similar. They are often hot-linked. Clicking on one of these or copying it into the search box will find everything in the database that matches that specific term.
In addition to the controlled vocabulary, most research databases have a wealth of other tools to refine your results in the sidebar. This video shows some of the options available in ProQuest Databases; other databases will have similar options.
Research databases always let you search specific "fields" or parts of the papers and their metadata. This is usually accomplished using a dropdown box after the search box. Sometimes you have to go to a special advanced search page to access this feature. This is not particularly useful if you're just doing a general topic search. However, if your search is more specific--for example, you are looking for papers by a specific author or you know the title of the paper and only need to find a copy--selecting the appropriate field will save a lot of time.
Most research databases have certain advanced features that you can only access by creating a free personal log-in account. These features usually include:
Database providers understand that there's a steep learning curve to using their products and that every database looks and works different from every other. Because of this they take great care in developing their help screens. If a database isn't doing what you expect or if you're trying to figure out a better way of interacting with it, open the help screen!